Fish and Human Rights

15 th day of the Omer — chesed sh’b’tiferet — loving kindness in compassion

On Friday morning after an early swim with Judy at the local JCC and breakfast at the incredibly cheap and delicious Waffle House (a Southern chain), I took MARTA (the subway) to the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I was told an average visit lasts 1-1/2 hours, but I’m not average —  it took me over 3 hours to take it all in. There was a lot to see, read, and assimilate. The most difficult experience was the re-enactment of sitting at a segregated lunch counter as a sit-in while vitriol is being hurled at me and even violence is all around — loud sounds through my headphones of baseball bats or heads being bashed and screams of abuse. It felt real and terrifying and there was a real taste of the fear, as well as of awe that all these young people in the ’60’s managed to respond nonviolently to violence.

An interesting factoid for me was learning about the role that Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of The Temple played in Atlanta’s civil rights work (where my friend Judi used to work), his friendship with Dr. King, and his vocal involvement with the school desegregation movement which led to the Temple getting bombed. (BTW, The Temple was filmed in Driving Miss Daisy –– it was where she was a member). It’s the oldest Reform congregation in Atlanta.

Another fascinating role was played by Coca Cola, which threatened to pull out of Atlanta if the business community didn’t get behind the dinner to honor Dr. King after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The dinner sold out (1500 tickets) within two hours following that threatening announcement. Money does talk. Even today Coca Cola has played that card. When the GA governor recently considered signing the religious freedom restoration act (a law which seems to only protect the freedom of bigots to hate), it was Coca Cola and Home Depot who convinced him of the  economic and public relations debacle that would ensue, so he didn’t sign the bill. I would like to be generous and view Coke through a lens of moral integrity alone, but motivations are complicated, and economic self-interest likely played a role as well.

Wall in Atlanta's Center for Civil and Human Rights commemorating the Freedom Riders

Wall in Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights commemorating the Freedom Riders. There was a real honoring of the men, women, and children — black and white — who had  played a part in the Civil Rights movement.Remember Emmet Till? Fannie Lou Hamer? Did you know that Rosa Parks was a serious NAACP investigator, not a mild-mannered “any woman” as she has been portrayed?

Norman Rockwell's iconic rendering

Norman Rockwell’s iconic rendering of Ruby Bridges integrating her school in New Orleans in 1960. The painting is called “The Problem We All Live With” and was published on the cover of Look, 1964. It is apparently still the most requested painting at the Rockwell museum in Stockbridge, MA. John Steinbeck wrote about Ruby in Travels with Charley: “The little girl did not look at the howling crowd. But from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn… Then the girl made a curious hop and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping but now in the middle of her first step the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.

The most visceral experience of the museum was sitting at the "lunch counter," listening (through headphones) to people screaming obscenities at me. I was to remain there with my hands on the counter, responding to violence with non-violence. I cried and prayed for the entire 90 seconds

The most visceral experience of the museum was sitting at the “lunch counter,” listening (through headphones) to people screaming obscenities at me. I was to remain there with my hands on the counter, responding to violence with non-violence. I cried and prayed for the entire 90 seconds. The sign where I placed my hands reads: “How long can you last? Put on a pair of headphones and place your hands flat on the designated areas. Experience a simulated response to your nonviolent protest and see how long you can keep calm with your hands steady on the counter. Try to keep your eyes closed.”

I'm about to sit at the lunch counter, totally unprepared for what is to come.

I’m about to sit at the lunch counter, totally unprepared for what is to come. A box of tissues was thoughtfully placed close by.

After passing through the civil rights part of the museum,  I visited the human rights floor, which helps make the connection between the US civil rights movement and other important contemporary movements both nationally and internationally, from public education and Internet freedom to ending genocide and sexual violence, to promoting the rights of women, the disabled, LGBT community,  the labor movement, immigrants, etc. I learned about a number of inspiring people, projects, and movements around the world.

We were also posed serious questions about our own ethical footprint in the world. For instance,we were encouraged to ask the companies that make our favorite chocolate to certify that the cacao is not from plantations that use child or slave labor. Will YOU research and ask? Other examples posed were about the minerals used in our electronic devices and the violence of the warlords who oversee their production and distribution (would you pay more for a cellphone if it were guaranteed “conflict-free”?); the child labor used to stitch soccer balls, preventing kids from attending school (would you contact a soccer ball manufacturer to find out how they insure that their soccer balls were not used with child labor?); shoes and clothing made abroad are also often made under unsafe and toxic working conditions — would you pay more for your clothing if you knew it protected the workers?;  the health risks for women who pick and cut flowers — thereby necessitating that we ask and pay for fair-trade flowers. All of these are actionable things that you and I can actually do to help protect  human rights. What will you take on?

Chocolate production is not child's play, but child labor under sometimes toxic conditions (pesticide use) make it

Chocolate production is not child’s play, but child labor (often slave labor) under sometimes toxic conditions (pesticide use) makes it dangerous and in humane work

The museum is located in the same complex as the Coca Cola museum and the aquarium. Within blocks were CNN headquarters which offers tours, as well as Emory University. It was already close to 3PM and it wasn’t an easy choice, but marine life won out, so I paid an exorbitant amount of money to see life-affirming miracles that made me happy, awe-struck, and feeling much better about the state of the world.

All felt so much better with the world when I entered the aquarium and encountered blue water (representing calm), and fish (representing freedom)

All felt so much better with the world when I entered the aquarium and encountered blue water (representing calm), and fish (representing freedom)

Though I couldn't film during the actually dolphin show ( though I did get soaking wet sitting in the 4th row!), this guy did come up to kiss me

Though I couldn’t film during the actually dolphin show (though I did get soaking wet sitting in the 4th row!), this guy did come up to kiss me (or kiss the glass that separated us)

Judi prepared a delicious Shabbat dinner (and surprised me with my favorite dessert –pecan pie) and invited lovely guests to join us. This morning we went to synagogue where a colleague serves as the associate rabbi. Laurence was an AJWS global justice fellow with me, and was on my trip to Guatemala last summer. It was great to visit with him to to meet his wife and kids.

Afterwards, Judi drove me to see the Temple. That was the only touring. The rest was R&R for Shabbat. But the tourist hat goes back on again tomorrow!

 

 

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