Today was our final day of this short and intense deep dive into the racial history and legacy of our country.
Rabbi Bernard Mehlman (emeritus of Temple Israel in Boston where I was teaching when I applied to rabbinical school), opened our morning. Rabbi Mehlman was himself involved in civil rights while a student at HUC in Cincinnati in the late ’50’s, helping to integrate lunch counters and the segregated pools. But he wanted to speak about three rabbis who were working in the south and how they responded to the civil rights movement:
- Rabbi Charles Mantinband, Hattiesburg, MS, a friend of Medgar Evers’ who vowed that he would never sit in the presence of bigotry and took an active role against segregation in education. When his temple president told him “you’re scaring us” with his activism, “You know that they could burn houses down..they could put us out of business, and I wish you would curtail your activities.”, Rabbi Mantinband responded, “I will not be muzzled.”
- Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, Jackson MS who raised money to help rebuild black churches, visiting imprisoned Freedom Riders in the Parchman Penitentiary, and had his own home bombed.
- and Rabbi Milton Grafman, Birmingham, AL, who was one of the clergy people to whom Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed his famed “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and who, after the bombing of the Birmingham church that killed four African-American girls just before Rosh Hashanah in 1963, ditched his prepared High Holy Day sermon, spoke about why he attended the funerals, and named the girls before the recitation of the Mourners’ Kaddish prayer (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Carol Denise McNair).
What Rabbi Mehlman tried to get across in his presentation were the nuances of the rabbis’ activism and why they each chose to do it, some more radically, some more pragmatically. I think it gave each of us food for thought as we considered how to take this work home and apply it in our own unique communities.
After this presentation, we proceeded to the parsonage where Dr. King lived with his family beginning in 1954, when he was pastor of the Dexter Street Church in Montgomery. There we met Dr. Shirley Cherry, wearing a button that said “No child is born a racist.” Dr. Cherry, the tour director for the Dexter Parsonage Museum, began by sharing the fact that her mother worked 16-hour days in a dry-cleaner’s and put her through college by ironing the robes for Ku Klux Klan members. We all gasped. Dr. Cherry introduced us to Nelson Malden who had been Dr. King’s barber (and who shared some funny stories about him and who co-wrote a book The Colored Waiting Room: Empowering the Original and the New Civil Rights Movements) and then she guided us through the house. She told us that after Emmett Till’s death, her parents warned her never to look a white person in the eyes. She said she was so scared until she met Dr. King who taught her not to be afraid. She said she is now only afraid of two things: God and ignorance.
She shared much wisdom and humor: “You must have some things you’re willing to die for or you’re not fit to live;” “If you don’t have a sense of humor, you have no sense;” “Let things break your heart but not your spirit;” “I used to have a photographic memory, but now it’s just graphic.” She also quoted Dr. King’s teacher from BU, Howard Thurman, on love: “To find ultimate security in an ultimate vulnerability, this is to be loved,” in addition to reminding us of some of Dr. King’s wonderful ideas (though they may not be exact quotes): “Nobody can ride your back unless it’s bent;” “The truth shall set you free;” his definition of character as being where someone stands in times of discomfort or conflict; “Everybody is significant on God’s keyboard — from a white key to a black key.” She also shared MLK’s three lessons that she wanted us to leave with:
- ordinary people can do extraordinary things
When we had our closing ceremony in the peace garden next door to the parsonage, Dr. Cherry told us that Patrick Kennedy had been criticized for his privilege as a way of undermining his run for Congress in Rhode Island (where she lived for many years). Kennedy’s reply was to the effect of “I know I’m privileged, but I can use it to help somebody.” At the formal conclusion of our program, that was the message I wanted to take home: how do I-how can I-how should I use my privilege and my white privilege in service to what is broken?
Though the program officially ended at noon, some of us had time before our flights to visit either the Rosa Parks or the Freedom Riders Museum. Having heard that the Rosa Parks museum did not offer the full and accurate history of her role in the civil rights movement as described in the new feminist history of the civil rights movement, At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle MacGuire (which was required — and eye-opening, revelatory — reading for this trip), I went to the Freedom Riders Museum instead. On the way, we found some other important Montgomery landmarks.
At the Freedom Riders Museum, appropriately housed in the old Greyhound bus station, I could again honor one of my heroes, Congressman John Lewis, as I had yesterday when walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — and be inspired by the stories of so many young people, both black and white, who put their lives at risk to integrate busses in the south. But there was much earlier history to the integration of the busses, and the cases brought by Irene Morgan (Morgan v. Virginia, 1946), Sarah Louise Keyes, and Bruce Carver Boynton (Boynton v. Virginia, 1960) which was on display, as well.
One of the ironic pieces of information I found in the museum was the story of Reverend James Lawson, who, along with (the seemingly ubiquitous) John Lewis and others, desegregated the lunch counters in Nashville, TN. As a result of his activism, he was expelled from Vanderbilt University. Ironically, he has been a visiting professor there since 2006!
Though I had read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy a couple of years ago, I re-read it for this trip, as it was another of our required readings, along with reports on lynchings and segregation published by his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson and EJI are responsible for both the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the lynching memorial) that we visited on Monday.
The information in this extensive quote from the end of his book is essential American history that I don’t believe we all have learned:
I believe that there are four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but remain poorly understood. The first, of course, is slavery. This was followed by the reign of terror that shaped the lives of people of color following the collapse of Reconstruction until World War II. Older people of color in the South would occasionally come up to me after speeches to complain about how antagonized they feel when they hear news commentators talking about how we were dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
An older African American man once said to me, “You make them stop saying that! We grew up with terrorism all the time…”
The racial terrorism of lynching in many ways created the modern death penalty. America’s embrace of speedy executions was, in part, an attempt to redirect the violent energies of lynching while assuring white southerners that black men would still pay the ultimate price…
The third institution, “Jim Crow,” is the legalized racial segregation and suppression of basic rights that defined the American apartheid era…
The fourth institution is mass incarceration. Going into any prison is deeply confusing if you know anything about the racial demographics of America. The extreme overrepresentation of people of color, the disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, the targeted prosecution of drug crimes in poor communities, the criminalization of new immigrants and undocumented people, the collateral consequences of voter disenfranchisement, and the barriers to re-entry can only be fully understood through the lens of our racial history.
I am so grateful that I had this opportunity to participate in this journey with rabbinic colleagues, in which we were able to be vulnerable and reflective about our rabbinates, our personal pain around the deep-rooted issues of racism, and the challenges to making inroads within our communities and in society at large around these issues. It was a painful trip, but it was also a prayerful trip.