Through a lot of reading and some travel, I have been trying to get my head around the legacy of slavery in the United States, issues of racial justice, how mass incarceration is, indeed, the new Jim Crow, and my own white privilege. I have begun to confront my own ignorance about this brutal history and its lasting impact on the African-American community, as well as my own complicity in maintaining the status quo of such disparity in our country. I have the ability to “pass” as white though my experience as a Jew means that I, too, am “other,” even more evident now post-Charlottesville and post-Pittsburgh. Martin Niemoller’s well-known “first they came for” quote from the Holocaust is so relevant today as white supremacists are increasingly emboldened to spread their hatred against all “others.”
At my workplace, a social service agency, we have convened Undoing Racism workshops for staff and explored our implicit bias and micro-aggressions against people of color, and learned that merely living in the United States as a person of color can be a contributing factor to psychological trauma. Though I’m getting more “woke” each day, I am not always sure how to be an ally.
Some of the important books I’ve read have included White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement by Danielle McGuire, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and myriads of novels and memoirs that illuminate the African-American experience.
A few years ago I went to Atlanta to learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr. by visiting his childhood home and church, the MLK National Historical Park, the King Center, as well as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. (Here is one blogpost from that trip particularly about Dr. King. Here’s another about my experience at the Human Rights museum.) I have also visited The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC and the plantations of Presidents Thomas Jefferson (Monticello) and James Madison (Montpelier), all three of which present hard truths about slavery through their exhibits and, in the case of the plantations, special tours.
And now here I am with 50 other Reform rabbis in Montgomery, Alabama (and Selma tomorrow) for a pre-High Holy Day seminar entitled “Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation.” In addition to a lot of reading, part of the preparation for this trip was to meet with an African-American clergy colleague to build relationship around the issue of racial justice. I had the good fortune to meet with a Baptist colleague in White Plains whose church had participated in an interfaith civil rights trip to Alabama with a White Plains synagogue, and I look forward to deepening my relationship with him when I return.
Today’s theme was truth and truth-telling. We visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both created under the auspices of the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization that is run by Bryan Stevenson and which I’ve supported for a number of years now.) The museum displays the history of slavery (and Montgomery’s particular role in it) and its legacy: lynching, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. One display of a full-page ad in the Selma Times-Journal in 1963 said “Ask Yourself This Important Question: What Have I Personally Done to Maintain Segregation?” I thought that this was an invitation for me to look at my own racism, my own white privilege, how I have unwittingly contributed to the perpetuation of segregation. In fact, it was an ad inviting readers to join a whites-only citizens’ council to help fight integration — and a reprimand if we are not doing so. Ouch.
From the museum, we headed to the new memorial which commemorates those African-Americans who have died by lynching. (On the way, we passed the bus-stop where Rosa Parks got on the bus that resulted in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and other historic sites, such as the route that the marchers from Selma to Montgomery took in 1965.)
Here are some of my photographs of this sacred place.
In the evening we met with three local African-American ministers who spoke their uncensored and unvarnished truths to us. What they shared was heavy and painful and inspirational, but all three made it clear that this trip cannot just be a nice “field trip” for us but a catalyst to our speaking truth as Jews to the reality of racism.
The evening concluded with a service. Included was a powerful poem by Marge Piercy, “The Low Road” and a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he spoke at a conference on religion and race in 1963 and first met Dr. King:
“Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking. Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?”
What have you done today?