For starters, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the New Year of the Trees were both marked on the same day this past week. Leaving this coincidence aside, let us turn to a more nuanced link between these events.
Throughout his years of activity, MLK was consumed with planting seeds. He was sowing the ground upon which one day in the unforeseeable future, trees and forests bearing the fruit of his painful and courageous efforts would blossom forth. From his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963, Rev. King penned the following words:
"I have no despair about the future... I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham.... We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom."
In an informative piece this past week, As MLK foresaw, Racism in America has been largely overcome, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby cited powerful studies highlighting the incredible shift in attitudes and behaviors of the American people in the past 51 years since MLK's assassination. "In 1958, 48 percent of white Americans polled by Gallup said that "if colored people came to live next door," they would be likely to move. By 1978, only 13 percent still said that; by 1997, the proportion had fallen to 1 percent... In 1964, a mere 18 percent of white Americans claimed to have a friend who was black. Four decades later, Gallup found that the proportion of interracial friendships had more than quadrupled: 82 percent of whites said they had close nonwhite friends (and 88 percent of blacks reported having close friends who were not black). Perhaps some white respondents were fibbing to appear more enlightened. But as commentator Jonah Goldberg observes, "the mere fact that they wanted others to believe they had a black friend is a kind of progress... Nearly 90 percent of the public approves of interracial marriage. In 1967, just 3 percent of couples tying the knot were of different races, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2015, 17 percent of all US newlyweds — one of every six — had married someone of another color."
Jacoby notes the obvious- We have yet to witness the day where bigotry, racism, and hatred of the other are completely rooted out and eradicated from our society, but one cannot stop and marvel at the unbelievable progress we have merited to achieve.
For MLK's seeds that he planted in the ground to have been granted a chance for germination, nourishment, and eventually growth, he needed to believe that his efforts would need time, patience, and courage, well beyond the days of his life.
The Talmud recounts the narrative of Honi the Sage who encountered a young man planting a carob tree. He asked the young man how long it would take for the seed to sprout and bear fruit, to which the young man responded that the seed would not produce fruit until seventy years had passed. Intrigued, Honi questioned the young man as to why he was exerting himself to plant with the knowledge that he would not live to enjoy the (literal) fruits of his labor! The young man responded:
I was born into a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.
Following this conversation, Honi fell into a deep 70-year slumber; upon awakening, he found the carob tree that had been planted all those years prior in full blossom. The New Year of the Trees is marked by early signs of spring's arrival; yet, the occurrence of this day appears in the dead of winter, representing our faith in the promise and progress of nature, that when all appears lifeless, the growth of something beautiful is already underway deep beneath the surface of the earth.
We need more leaders who have the courage to invest their time, skills, and energy into projects and ideas that may not bear fruit in a day, week, or year, but rather engage in long-term planting investments, that will inevitably with the appropriate care, sensitivity, and involvement of each passing generation of leaders, sprout into blossoming orchards, forests, and gardens.