Bryan Stevenson deserves our attention even if he doesn’t speak directly to our concerns as Jews.
Stevenson runs an organization out of Montgomery, Alabama, called Equal Justice Initiative. It is an NGO legal services campaign dedicated to representing convicted blacks, some on death row, whose incarceration often is the result of racial discrimination. Stevenson makes the compelling case for a through-line from slavery to Jim Crow segregation to mass imprisonment, and not only in the South.
I recently returned from an eight-day vacation-with-a-purpose — the goal was to trace the modern civil rights evolution from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision overturning legal segregation to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Joined by my wife and two still-good friends, I mainly visited museums of conscience — a relatively new repository development — in Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuskegee, and three towns in Mississippi — Philadelphia (the scene where voter-registration activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered), Money (where scholars believe the 1955 murder of Emmett Till launched the modern grassroots civil rights movement), and Oxford, the home of Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, where James Meredith dramatically broke that university’s color line.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, an interactive counter-memorial in Montgomery commemorating documented cases of public lynching, reminded me of a survey my synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, conducted some three years ago. The survey revealed that limitations on members’ disposable time kept them from attending our programs. It was puzzling, then, that many of them reported an interest in social justice concerns, suggesting a growing interest within the Jewish community in matters that influence our American as well as our Jewish lives.
We four travelers, who are Jewish, observed and commented on the historical and spiritual civil rights and Jewish intersections. We were aware that we were more than spectators.
We also were aware that we were revisiting an era whose legacy is unraveling. When we talk about polarization in American society, we are referring to a process that is redirecting our multicultural aspirations to culture-war belligerence. It helps to recall that the civil rights movement a half-century ago was set against the background of the Cold War. What inspired bystanders across the political spectrum to notice racial injustice and take action on the street and in Washington was the shame of our undemocratic, racist behavior, and the hypocrisy it exposed in our struggle against the worldwide communist threat. It was as if our Cold-War survival as a democracy depended in good part on our commitment to racial justice at home. Many who benefited from social and economic privileges were willing to accommodate them to a higher or competing purpose.
Nothing substantial has taken the place of the Cold War to inspire our faith in a transcendent good cause. It appears that we again are concerned if not anxious about number one, indifferent to if not suspicious of others. It would be reassuring if the human rights and transitional justice movements fired our imaginations and galvanized us to principled action.
There is hope that social-justice work is emerging as a cutting edge in Jewish life. I love Bryan Stevenson. But nothing, for now, shames us and our fellow citizens daily into taking decisive, persistent steps to protect a culture of uncompromising mutual respect. We possess good intentions and our donations of time and treasure are surely important, but the cause so far is piecemeal. We are floundering.
We are a people whose tradition is replete with begetting. Short of Cold War II, we can rediscover our principles in small steps that might beget change-making movements. The Equal Justice Initiative offers an idea: Counties or perhaps entire regions in which lynching occurred can collaborate with EJI to remember the event by requesting a replica of a representative part of its memorial for local installation. One documented case of lynching occurred in central New Jersey — surely there were others throughout the state. Let’s bring the story back home. We can explore installing it among the twin memorials to the Holocaust and U.S. slavery now under development in Teaneck. (Bruce Prince, one of my traveling companions, is a co-organizer.) Even if Bergen County doesn’t qualify, we can start a conversation leading to joint projects with our neighbors.
It’s an isolated idea for sure, but maybe it will lock into other isolated events — many showing considerable promise — against a background whose features we need to divine. Referring to his participation in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that “our march was worship.” It was “protest and prayer” that I believe can and must crystallize a renewed, other-directed social climate we Jews and all Americans can cherish.
Dennis Klein of Teaneck, a professor of history at Kean University and the director of its master of arts in Holocaust and genocide studies and Jewish studies programs, is co-chair of Congregation Beth Sholom’s Adult Education Committee.