Civil Rights trip shows there is still much work to be done
By Rabbi Devorah Jacobson
It has long been on my “bucket list” to visit the American South for a Civil Rights trip, to hear some of the stories and to visit some of the historic sites associated with this movement. At each stop on our recent trip, organized by Road Scholar, we learned so much about past injustices: the history of slavery in this country, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, as well as the deep wounds and trauma affecting generations of African Americans.
But our trip was also about the present: as we learned, even more clearly, how the ideology of white supremacy on which this country was founded has reappeared today in forms like the mass incarceration of and police brutality particularly against black men, as well as re-segregation of our schools. For me, and for many of the 33 participants on this trip, including Susan and Mark Goldman, and me and my spouse Margaret Mastrangelo from Western Massachusetts, despite our regular efforts to stay informed and educated on these issues, we were aware after eight days of exploration, how much we had not understood, and how much denial and racism still exists in this country.
Our trip took us to four cities and a variety of sites: Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham. There were three sites in particular that moved me very deeply.
The first was our visit to Morehouse College in Atlanta. A historically black college, this private, all-male liberal arts school is the alma mater of many prominent African-American leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee. We were taken on a campus tour by a Morehouse “Ambassador,” a young man completing his first year at Morehouse, enthusiastic about school, involved in a multitude of activities, and very intentional about his future endeavors.
We met several students, over lunch and felt a unique spirit among them and the school in general. It was a sense that this place was providing a rich and strong sense of compassionate brotherhood and deeply humanistic values; that students felt a strong sense of purpose in what they were doing and why they were there.
On a monument in the center of campus, we read: “There is an expectancy at Morehouse College… that the student who enters here will do well and that a man who graduates from here will do exceptionally well…It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, or any college, to produce clever graduates, men fluent in speech and able to argue their way through, but rather honest men, who are sensitive to the wrongs, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting these ills.”
Secondly, our visit to the Rosa Parks Museum was an impressive tribute to this Civil Rights hero. At the entry to this state-of-the-art museum, there was a tribute to a major donor who helped establish the museum, Charles Baum (1942-2015). It made me proud to see Jewish involvement and philanthropy at this place in particular. It made me think more about the involvement back then and more recently too of Jews in Civil Rights and other movements of social change. Baum was raised in Montgomery in a prominent Jewish family. After completing his education at the University of Maryland law school, he lived in Baltimore for most of his adult life, participating in many civic and philanthropic causes while remaining very devoted to his Alabama roots. When asked about growing up Jewish in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement, he expressed his profound regret at not having done more to fight racism, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
The third site was one that has received extensive press coverage recently and cannot be overstated. We had the privilege of witnessing the grand opening of two museums, located near the Alabama State Capitol: the National Memorial to Peace and Justice (what some have dubbed the “Lynching Memorial”) as well as the Legacy Museum. Both are the brainchild and vision, not of the federal or even the state government, but of Bryan Stevenson and the team at the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based legal advocacy organization. They believe that this country has done little to acknowledge its legacy of slavery, lynching, racial segregation, and mass incarceration. They have chosen to start that process in the South, where so much of it happened, so that Americans would come and witness the truths of what went on.
Stevenson, a MacArthur “Genius” award recipient, and a Harvard trained lawyer, moved to Montgomery and has dedicated his career to challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Over many years, as he writes in his book Just Mercy, he and his colleagues have won reversals, relief or release for more than 125 wrongly-condemned prisoners on Death Row. They have also spent years immersing themselves in archives and county libraries seeking to document the thousands of lynchings across the country.
Both museums are powerful and brutally honest. The Lynching Memorial, in particular, as Campbell Robertson writes in the New York Times, “demands a reckoning with one of the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror.” Inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, this exhibit commemorates 4,400 black people who were slain in lynchings in counties in the South, but also, to my surprise, in states like Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, and Minnesota. The victims’ names, where known, are engraved on 800 rusting steel columns, all suspended from the ceiling. As Alexis Okeowo described it in the New Yorker, “The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the wooden floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, evoking lifeless bodies hanging from trees.”
The experience was devastating and left many of us tearful. I felt deeply ashamed. Susan Goldman reflected, “My emotions on this trip, particularly at the Lynching Memorial, were parallel to what I have experienced as a Jew at Babi Yar and Yad Vashem: all of them focus on the power and significance of remembering.” “For me,” said Margaret Mastrangelo, “the EJI Memorial and the Legacy museum is a jolting reminder. Only looking back into history without seeing how systematic racism is being played out today in many forms such as mass incarceration would be a terrible mistake. There is still so much work to be done.”
And as Bryan Stevenson, whose great-grandparents were slaves in Virginia, has said, “I’m not interested in talking about America’s history because I want to punish America. I want to liberate America… the history has to be acknowledged and its destructive legacy faced.”
We left Alabama and the South wondering: Where does this experience lead us? How does such a trip transform? In what ways will we work even more to fight racism and bigotry? It is difficult to escape the trajectory of slavery while unarmed black men and boys continue to be shot or racially profiled or sentenced unfairly in our judicial system.
As I live into those answers, hoping to connect these powerful experiences to my everyday life, I am certain of the importance of urging everyone I know: Go to Montgomery. See it for yourself! As Campbell Robertson wrote about the EJI Memorial, “There is nothing like it in the country.” And I would add, or maybe even in the world.
Rabbi Devorah Jacobson is the director of spiritual life at JGS Lifecare in Longmeadow.