My grandmother, Sarah Faust Burton, was a proud Southern Presbyterian woman who moved from North Carolina to Indiana to build a life with her Jewish husband. Years after her passing, my grandfather encouraged me to embrace a heritage including our family connection to groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. While at first I found his enthusiasm baffling, I came to understand that, in his own way, he thought it was important not to romanticize the past but to be aware of our journey as a family and a nation, and the pieces that make up and inform who we are becoming.
I thought of my grandparents this past week as we all grappled with the horrific act of racial terrorism at Emanuel AME Church.
It is remarkable and welcome that in the span of just a few days, the Confederate battle flag has gone from being a socially tolerated representation of “Southern pride” to being nearly fully rejected as the symbol that it is, of hate and of defiance to racial progress. This shift is long overdue and it came at too high a cost in sacred lives taken from us.
But if we only respond to the symbols and the immediate needs in Charleston, we will have failed to meet this moment. This needs to be a turning point in our confrontation with the chasms of race, and the inequality of experiences, within our society. As my friend Yehuda Kurtzer noted, this week the “forces of stagnation managed to make the issue entirely about the confederate flag… and nearly not at all about the much greater brokenness of racism and guns and the adaptive work that is required to heal our society from its addiction to both.”
Some examples of the broader response that is needed:
- While South Carolina is moving quickly on the flag – and Governor Nikki Haley should be credited for her leadership this week – they are one of but five states that still have no hate crimes law on the books (and, as the ADL has noted, many who do have limited statutes). Addressing symbols without changing laws is not enough.
- While 37 states, including Massachusetts, have tightened gun laws in the past two years, in 40 states buyers can still easily sidestep federal background checks as the Charleston killer did, through a “private sale.” This needs to change, along with so many other laws that facilitate our culture of gun violence.
- In the 20th Century, the Confederate flag gained new traction as part of resistance to the Civil Rights movement. Two years ago, the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, unleashing a horde of voter access restrictions across the nation that particularly impact minority and low-income citizens. Congress has yet to act. It is past time to restore the VRA and the accomplishments so hard won in that era.
There has been an outpouring of support from around the nation to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund to help pay for the nine funerals this week. But the crisis that poor families face when unexpectedly faced with the cost of burying a murdered loved one – and having to quickly come up with thousands of dollars they don’t have - is larger than what occurred this week. The need to support vulnerable populations and youth projects that Reverend Clementa Pinckney was so passionate about go beyond Charleston, and are vital to creating hope, opportunity and promise for all of our children.
It is in this spirit that I am so proud this week, that in addition to supporting the Hope Fund, CJP has made donations to two of JCRC’s partners here in Boston that directly address these challenges in our own city:
The Roxbury Presbyterian Social Impact Center is the non-profit arm of Roxbury Presbyterian Church led by Rev. Liz Walker. Their mission is to create educational and economic development programs to strengthen the Roxbury community. Their key programs include the Cory Johnson Trauma Education Project, pioneering a new, community-based approach to addressing the epidemic of PTSD in our urban neighborhoods and CommonUnity: Nights for Youth Peace, created by and for teens as a safe space for youth to be creative, connect, eat great food and just hang out.
The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute was founded by Tina Cherry, following the murder of her young son Louis, 20 years ago. JCRC works with Tina and her Institute as part of our organizing work to prevent gun violence. Their mission is to serve as a center of healing, teaching and learning for families and communities dealing with murder, trauma, grief and loss. Committed to restorative justice, the Peace Institute provides programs, services & trainings that are thorough and relevant with a multi-cultural lens.
Yes, we need to confront the White nationalism, the hatred, the bigotries that continue to be a cancer on our society; and we need to consign the Confederate flag to the history museums.
We also need to see this not just as a challenge in South Carolina or “the South.” We need to be honest about our own roles in perpetuating systemic inequality. We need to commit to being in partnership with Black churches here in Boston to building something better for all of our children; we need to work together in our own communities to confront the intractable racism in all corners of our nation.
If we do all this, we will honor those who died in Charleston last week, not by romanticizing or forgetting the past, but by understanding its place in our present, and leaving it aside as we become what we aspire to.