Columnist Sara Weinberger: ‘Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope’

Published: 1/19/2020 2:01:09 PM

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. has been invoked by those on the left and right to justify their political agendas, sometimes in ways that desecrate the meaning of his words.

Last year, for example, Vice President Mike Pence, speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” used King’s words to support President Donald Trump’s decision to shut down the government until he received funding for his border wall.

Exploiting his words and deeds, as well as assuming how he would react to current events, can be a desecration of the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. However, Dr. King’s leadership and wisdom did not die when he was struck by an assassin’s bullet. Returning to his teachings can arm us with knowledge and inspiration critical to achieving a moral victory against those who use their powers to oppress others.

In 1964, King spoke to both East and West Berliners to bear witness in order to call the world’s attention to the injustice of using walls to restrict freedom. His words call to mind the southern border wall in our own country:

“For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them on this pilgrim journey.”

Last Dec. 17, I joined a packed audience at the Northampton Center for the Arts to hear another human rights activist. Josh Rubin woke up one morning in 2017, got into his pickup truck and headed for a children’s detention camp in Brownsville, Texas. He left his home in New York City because he felt called to bear witness to the victims of Trump’s draconian policies at the southern border, which separate families and imprison children.

Initially staging a one-man protest, Rubin daily walked the perimeter of the detention center, documenting his observations, and holding signs that read, “Free Them,” and “Estamos de tu lado,” (“We’re on your side.”) Eventually, others joined him, and the facility was closed in January 2018.

Rubin then moved on to a second facility in Homestead, Florida, which he was also instrumental in closing. Today, he has organized, “Witness at the Border,” holding daily vigils in Brownsville to demand an end to Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which require tens of thousands of asylum seekers to remain in Mexico to wait for their cases to be heard.

He and protestors from all over the U.S. also travel across the border to bear witness to the deplorable and life-threatening conditions at the Metamoros tent encampment.

I confess to having had a cynical attitude toward those who flock to the border to bear witness. When I heard that a group of activists from western Mass. were flying to the Brownsville/Metamoros border in February to bear witness, I thought it might have been better to take the money they were spending on airfare and accommodations and donate it to an organization providing on the ground support for asylum-seekers.

Besides, what good would bearing witness do anyway? I recalled the discomfort I felt as a tourist in India, witnessing horrific poverty from the window of a tour bus. It brought to mind the term, “Poverty Porn.”

I was wrong. Those who bear witness, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Josh Rubin, can help to reverse inhumane policies that keep people in bondage, by exposing human suffering perpetrated by governments. In Rubin’s words, “The word for witness is ‘testigo’ in Spanish. We’re going to go back and testify. People who come here to witness are going to carry what they’ve seen across the nation. They’re going to shout it from the rooftops.”

On Feb. 8, 10 members of Western Mass. Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice will spend eight days in Brownsville protesting the MPP. They will feed 1,200 asylum-seekers and bring them needed supplies, teach encamped children at a sidewalk school and listen to the stories of those desperate for asylum. On Feb. 14, they will join Rubin and others in a massive protest called, “Love Not Hate.”

After returning, they plan to share their experiences with anyone who will listen. These activists are following their conscience to bear witness to expose the cruelty perpetrated on those who are seeking asylum, and to give hope to those who are suffering.

The day after Martin Luther King arrived in Berlin in 1964, a young East Berliner was rescued by an American soldier after being shot attempting to escape. The event compelled Dr. King to deliver a speech in East Berlin. The U.S. government forbid the visit, confiscating his passport, but he went anyway.

Crowds of East Berliners, hearing about King’s appearance through word of mouth were profoundly moved by the words of the man who crossed the wall to bear witness to their struggle for freedom.

“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” MLK, 1963

To learn more about supporting the witnessing trip of Western Mass. Jewish Activists for Immigrant Justice, contact: or

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at

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