The Latest from BZBI

Accounting for Justice

Mishpatim 5779 / 2 February 2019

February 6, 2019

It’s a strange thing, that we refer to history as “the past,” when in its very essence our remembering brings those events into the present. Almost two weeks ago I was in Atlanta for my father’s unveiling. Standing at his grave, seeing the outline still where the grass hasn’t fully grown in, his name etched in stone, underscored that I will conclude my eleven months of kaddish just three weeks from now. My year of mourning is drawing to a close, and yet I find that he is, if anything, more present for me now than in the wake of his passing, in some ways more present even than when he was alive but physically far away.

I took a few extra days in order to travel with my daughter Odelia and two of my uncles to Mobile, Alabama, where they grew up. I had proposed a trip like this to my dad, but we didn’t have time to make it happen. A few months ago my uncles Jere and Bill offered to take on the role of tour guide, and since we would all be at the unveiling together, we planned for the four of us to drive down from Atlanta.

At my uncle Bill’s suggestion, we stopped in Montgomery to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The Memorial, which opened less than a year ago, is “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” Expecting a sculpture or monument, I was almost completely unprepared for the experience of visiting the Memorial. I felt emotions that, previously, I had only encountered when visiting memorials for the Shoah; and yet the violence and brutality memorialized there did not happen to my people. More than that, I recognize that I have benefitted from the systems of racial discrimination and privilege that were the Memorial’s essential focus.

It’s hard to convey the emotional impact of the Memorial itself. We entered through a dark, enclosed passage. The first path led up a gentle hill past engravings detailing the history of slavery and racism in 19th-century America and a gut-wrenching sculpture of slaves – men, women, and babies – being brought in chains to market. The Memorial itself began at the top of the hill: a house-like structure filled with 800 rust-brown iron blocks, each representing a county where racial terror lynchings occurred, listing the names and dates of death for each victim. At first you walk among the blocks, but the floor slopes downward and soon the memorial blocks – each of which are hung at the same height – begin to separate from the floor. Halfway through the memorial, the iron blocks tower overhead, too high to read the names inscribed. Suspended together in neat, orderly rows, they evoke Billie Holiday’s stomach-churning image of “Strange Fruit.” The ramp has now descended dozens of feet below ground level and only dim light filters down; the darkness closes in as the memorial blocks go on and on.

When we got back on the road, our conversation turned to my uncles’ experience growing up in Alabama in the last years of Jim Crow and during the Civil Rights Movement. Strangely, this wasn’t a subject I thought to ask about when I was growing up; I knew that my father, born in 1940, must have lived through those historic times, but I didn’t ask him about it until a few months before he died. Some of what my uncles shared, as well as what my dad recalled last year, was hard to hear. My grandmother was born in Mississippi and moved to Alabama just before starting high school; my grandfather left Philadelphia for Mobile in his early 20s. Even my father, born in 1940, confessed that he never thought to question Jim Crow laws, didn’t think much about segregation at all when he was growing up. At the time it seemed to him that it was just the way things always had been.

The stories painted a complex picture. In my uncles’ recollection, my grandparents harbored no ill will toward people of color, but probably also believed that African-Americans were in some intrinsic way inferior to Caucasians. At the same time, they bitterly lamented the election of Governor George Wallace, a hard-core segregationist, in 1962. As Jews in the American South, they occupied a fragile middle ground: almost part of the white elite – but also not quite. The synagogue was vandalized with KKK graffiti; the “right” clubs and civic organizations were closed to our tribe. Nevertheless, my father went to the white public schools; he received the kind of education, and my grandfather had access to the kind of business connections, made it possible for my dad to go to Penn and on to a career at the highest levels of corporate America. My father entered high school the fall after Brown v. Board of Education.

We are justifiably proud of rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz, who stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the countless Jewish activists who stood as allies in the struggle for equal rights. At the same time it is also true, as my uncles shared with me and Odelia, that many rabbis and congregants, especially in the South, opposed integration; and a great many more stood on the sidelines, taking no action to redress the blatant injustices of their society. People like my grandparents may not have been responsible for the crimes of racial terror memorialized in Montgomery – but without a doubt they were complicit.

Nevertheless, the feelings I took away from the Memorial also reminded me that the Civil Rights Movement dawned barely a decade after the horrors of the Shoah. While this undoubtedly led some Jews to find common cause in the struggles of their African-American neighbors, many who held back – including my grandfather – expressed a fear that if we stuck our necks out too far, the same forces of white supremacy would turn on us as well. I wish people like my grandparents, all our fellow Jews in Southern states, had shown the moral courage to take part in the fight for racial justice – but I have to allow that, so soon after the Shoah and in the heart of Klan territory, their fears were neither irrational nor unfounded.

At its most basic core, parashat Mishpatim revolves around questions of accountability: for what are we accountable, and to whom? Emerging from the Memorial, we encountered an open field lined with 800 more iron blocks: exact replicas of the memorial blocks, lined up county by county, waiting for local communities to collect them and set up their own memorial in the counties where these murders took place. Walking along the line of blocks for Georgia, I found Fulton County, where I grew up – and saw that the list of names ran so long they needed to use a smaller typeface and lay the names out in two columns, side by side. I called Odelia over and we stood there in silent witness.

None of this is really “past.” From Ferguson, Missouri to the Starbucks across the street, the consequences of America’s racial prejudices continue to reverberate around us. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice makes clear that Jim Crow is only one part of a longer story. Just as the entry path outlines the history of 18th and 19th-century slavery, the way to the exit leads past statues and plaques dealing with the impact of mass incarceration and police violence on contemporary citizens of color.

Odelia and I discussed a lot of this the other day. It’s interesting to work through accountability with an eleven-year-old: she immediately got the basic concept of owning up to the things we have done wrong, but struggled with the idea that, sometimes, we must bear accountability for someone else’s wrongdoing. I doubt there is even one representative currently serving one of those 800 counties who has actually lynched anybody; the terrorists who committed these crimes, and the police, judges, and politicians who let them off the hook, are largely all dead by now. And yet, as I pointed out to Odelia, someone needs to be accountable for what happened in our country, not only in the South but in fifteen states outside that region – including our own. It falls to the leaders and citizens of our generation to do redress the wrongs of our parents’ and grandparents’ age. I urge you to find a way to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It was a powerful experience, but more than that it stands as a vital witness to our nation’s tortured racial history; just as we will never forget the violence inflicted upon our people in other lands, we must also remember the brutality suffered by others in our country.

I hope I will have the opportunity to return to Montgomery one day. I want my other kids to see the Memorial, to understand their history as Americans in general and in the specific roots of our family. I hope when I go back I will find many of the second set of monuments missing from the lawn. I hope one day when I visit my mom I can see, somewhere in Fulton County, a memorial to the racial terror lynchings that took place there. On this Shabbat of parashat Mishpatim, I feel the call for accountability. It rests with each of us individually to recognize the ways in which racial discrimination and privilege have shaped our lives, and collectively to insist that our leaders and representatives begin accepting accountability on behalf of our nation as a whole.