Penny and I were both born in 1948. We were 15 in 1963 – old enough to hear the news on TV and recognize that important events were unfolding in the South, but not sufficiently engaged to fully understand or comprehend what occurred that year. Simply stated, our view of the events of that year were naïve and vastly oversimplified. Our belief in our present-day national forward progress in Civil Rights, already badly damaged by the shadow of Charlottesville and the resurgence of the Alt-Right, was stripped fairy naked by four days in Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery.
We never really understood how the tap-root of Slavery – born out of economic avarice – was transformed into Jim Crow. Or how Jim Crow has morphed in the present day, reincarnated in our criminal justice system in every state in our country and embodied in voter suppression and gerrymandering initiatives.
We never really understood the extent of the application of terror by Whites against the Black citizenry in the post-reconstruction era through the 1960s.
We never fully appreciated the bravery and non-violence self-discipline of African American protesters in Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, Jackson, Greensboro, and Memphis… and hundreds of other locations throughout the South. These men and women placed their lives on the line. They faced physical assault and jailing with Ghandian stoicism. In Montgomery they sent their children to march knowing they were going to fire-hosed. We doubt we could have sent our own pre-teen and teen-aged children into such a maelstrom.
And we certainly never really understood how today the criminal justice system has been turned into a tool of voter disenfranchisement for minorities or how our “law and order” policies of mandatory “three strikes” sentencing and lengthy incarceration guidelines have increased recidivism rather than deterring it. Nor had we realized how significantly the right to vote in minority communities has been significantly curtailed by newly enacted restrictive voting laws in the past five years.
Because we were travelling in a carefully planned group tour, we had the opportunity to meet with a survivor of the March in Selma and a Southern Baptist Bishop who was part of the leadership of the Montgomery protests. Their first person narratives were incredibly powerful – bringing to my mind our guide for a CJP mission to Poland in 1994 who was an Auschwitz survivor.
What was the moment we remember most? For us it was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka “The Legacy Museum” and “National Lynching Memorial”). The museum traces the evolution of slavery from the late 1600’s through Reconstruction, into the era of Jim Crow, and then to the present day using primary source materials. The monument has a power I have only experienced three times before: at Auschwitz, at Yad Vashem, and at the Viet Nam Memorial.
The words on the entry to the memorial read:
For the hanged and beaten
For the shot, drowned, and burned,
For the tortured, tormented and terrorized
For those abandoned by rule of law
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome
The trip left us with niggling question, but one stands out: In the 1960’s the Jewish community forged a strong bond with the African American community, supporting the Civil Rights movement on its many fronts. Jews understood and identified with persecuted minorities. But in 2019 that bond has frayed until it is nearly completely severed. The historic relationship forged with the NAACP and SCLC by the Freedom Riders and a host of Jewish organizations has been largely forgotten. African American organizations are gravitating towards BDS initiatives. On college campuses, many African Americans view Jewish students as entitled — unable to understand or empathize with their status and situation — and civil discourse between Jews and African Americans is strained or nearly non-existent. It’s easy to blame this on the current political environment, but the dissolution of these bonds started several years before the rise of the Alt-Right.
We have always recognized that growing up African-American in the USA carries residual risks and challenges and that racism is still a significant force in corners of America. That Racism remains an underlying, endemic stain on our collective body politic can’t be debated. This trip highlighted the depth and breadth of that stain, lurking almost undetectable until it is illuminated by a CSI-like ultra-violet light.
We all have to ask ourselves what we can do to change this haunting status quo. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”