This Friday, a message from Acting Executive Director Nahma Nadich.
Late one night last summer, on a Jerusalem hotel rooftop, I had a jarring conversation with a Black Baptist minister, a participant in our JCRC Israel Study Tour for Christian Clergy. He was sharing his reaction to to Yad Vashem, which we had visited earlier that day. The iconic Holocaust museum always inspires deep emotion among our participants; grief, horror, and for some, anguish at the role of the church in these unthinkable crimes against the Jewish people. But this minister confessed feeling something I had not heard before – envy. He hesitated in sharing his reflection with me, knowing how insensitive it might sound. But he acknowledged feeling envious of Jews for knowing, and being able to document our history (albeit largely due to the fanatic documentation of our Nazi killers). He told me that as a black man, he didn’t know – and would probably never be able to discover – the history of his family and people. When your ancestors are kidnapped and stolen, when their identities are forever erased, you can’t know who or where you come from. You can’t share your story, and you can’t experience the compassionate support of others bearing witness to your trauma, as I do each time Christian friends accompany me to Yad Vashem. I was pained by this realization.
As Jews, we know that facing and sharing our history is a sacred obligation, no more so than in these times, when so many seek to deny our historical experience as a people. But my friend’s painful admission reminded me of my woefully inadequate knowledge of HIS people’s history, and of our failure as Americans to embed the ugly and uncomfortable truths of this nation’s history into our education system. So I resolved to organize my own “study tour”, to honor his story, as he had honored mine. And I learned several critical lessons along the way, beginning with the one my friend taught me that night; about the redemptive and healing power of facing one’s past.
So my husband and I headed south, first to Louisiana, then to Alabama. For the past few years, I had been following the work of Bryan Stevenson, the Harvard trained lawyer who has dedicated his life to compelling justice for black, brown, and impoverished people condemned by a racist criminal justice system. Stevenson’s achievements are legendary; winning the exoneration of wrongly convicted defendants, and even Supreme Court arguments, including one that has ended the practice of mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles. Stevenson’s latest project is perhaps his most audacious, in founding the Equal Justice Initiative Museum and Memorial, where the untold truths of our nation’s past of racial oppression, violence and terror are meticulously documented and exposed. Stevenson and his team conducted massive research into the hidden history of terror lynching, documenting as many instances as they could, and bringing earth from the sites of these public murders, for display in jars at the Memorial.
Jars of soil from lynching sites
The words of poet Maya Angelou, adorning the outer walls of the Museum, serve as its raison d’etre: “History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, But if faced with courage, need not be lived again”. Located in a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned, visitors first descend into a dark area with barred cells, where hologram-like projections describe their experience - quoting from diaries of people once locked up in this space – crying out for the children who have been ripped from their arms.
But lest you think that you are learning about a chapter of history neatly tucked into our past, the museum tells a compelling narrative; that slavery never ended, it just evolved, through the chapters of terror lynchings and Jim Crow, to the current phenomenon of mass incarceration. In the words of Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent man, who with Stevenson’s help, was exonerated after serving 28 years on Death Row for a crime he did not commit, “The executions moved indoors, they took off white robes and put on black ones”. Lesson two: the past is not really past; it extends fully into our present.
With the assistance of expert local guides, we made our way through the streets of New Orleans and Montgomery, shocked to see the still standing tributes to the Confederacy, among them statues of Jefferson Davis and Dr. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology” whose scientific advances were the results of his tortuous treatment of enslaved women, on whom he operated without anesthesia. But we were equally shocked by the more implicit reminders of the South’s refusal to face its past; in more recently erected “historical” markers, referring to the trading of “commodities” leaving unsaid that it was human beings who were being bought and sold.
But just as our sense of Northern righteousness peaked, we visited the Southern Poverty Law Center, with its display of the iconic picture of Ted Landsmark being assaulted in Boston by a bussing opponent wielding an American flag as a giant spear. And we were reminded of Boston’s own shameful history of racial violence, and its enduring racial divisions and persistent racial disparities. Lesson three: Racial oppression and violence has never been limited to the South. It is everywhere in this country.
The last lesson we learned was an affirmation of a truth that has become an urgent one in these times; that my friend’s history is inextricably linked with mine, as are our fates. Our NOLA tour began with our reading from the Louisiana Code Noir, or slave code, introduced in 1724 and remaining in force until 1803. The first item in the code? “Decrees the expulsion of Jews from the colony”. And in the Montgomery Museum hangs a chilling sign from the Jim Crow South, “No (n-words) No Jews, No Dogs”. At a time when so many are working so hard to sow divisions among us, these historical markers served as stark reminders that just as the Jewish and Black community are targeted by the same toxic ideology (with Jews of Color at the apex of this onslaught), our liberation can only be achieved by our collective effort.
In the words of Dr. King, posted outside his jail cell on display in Birmingham,
“…I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
My minister friend taught me to cherish the gift of knowing one’s history, and thanks to the trip his words inspired, I learned essential lessons about his people’s story, and the history we share as Americans. Shedding light on our most shameful chapters, understanding their enduring legacy in all parts of this country, and working together for peace and justice is the only way to truly ensure that we do not live this history again.
As I approach my twentieth anniversary at JCRC, the work ahead has never felt so urgent. Addressing the crisis of mass incarceration by advocating for criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth, joining with our interfaith partners to confront Boston’s enduring racial divide and nurturing relationships across the community that enable us to pursue our collective vision - that is the work of community relations. I can think of no more powerful vehicle than the field of community relations in acknowledging and honoring Dr. King’s “inescapable network of mutuality”, nor any greater privilege than engaging our community in this effort.