Here, I share some thoughts upon my recent return from marching as a part of the NAACP-organized “Journey for Justice.” The march spans 860 miles from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C. to highlight and address continuing issues of racial justice. Over 150 Reform rabbis from across the nation have committed to be a part of this extraordinary journey and I am proud to count myself among them. In our arms, we carry a Torah scroll, the sacred document of our people that proclaims the message of justice and redemption.
There was a man who led the march every day and he walked the majority of each day’s 18-22 miles. He stood in the front and held a full-sized American flag, waving it on occasion high above his head, especially spurred on when someone driving by in a car or someone sitting on their porch watching our caravan pass by whooped in support.
With the Torah in my arms, I introduced myself to him as we lined up to begin the march. “Middle Passage,” he replied. “My name is Middle Passage.”
Later in the day, I found a quiet moment to approach Middle Passage, or MP as he was sometimes called, and asked him more about how he came to take on that name assuming and I was right that it was not his given name. I knew the history of the middle passage, that horrific route that carried African slaves across the ocean but I wanted to know him and what led to his decision to take on that name.
MP was a relatively quiet man. He took on the name in 1999 and then proceeded to paint his story in simple and broad, but evocative and powerful strokes.
“You have to know where you came from to know where you are going.”
And I thought to myself, “How Jewish.”
The pull of history. The anthem of Never Forget. The repercussions of history’s horrors playing out in our communities still to this day.
The African-American and Jewish communities have long been united both in oppression as well as in lifting up and calling for greater justice for all peoples. For we know: “You have to know where you came from to know where you are going.”
The Journey for Justice, this 40-day movement from Selma, Alabama to our nation’s capital is about knowing where we came from, where we are, and indeed where we need to go.
Simply watching the state police escorting and protecting the marchers was a moment that brought that learning home. Fifty years ago, our law enforcement stood in our way and now, with blue lights shining, they are leading it. And while we celebrated and honored the officers and troopers helping us in our march for freedom, we are also marching for greater transparency in our law enforcement’s dealings with the public and for bridge-building particularly between law enforcement and the black community.
There is so much work, sacred work to be done.
It is America’s Journey for Justice, organized by the NAACP whose proud partners include the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. And just to emphasize the commitment of Reform Judaism to this work: it was in the RAC, in the Religious Action Center itself where both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted.
The journey’s subtitle is: “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Schools, and Our Jobs Matter.” The Journey for Justice is about appealing to the hearts of the American people.
It reminds me of the story of the disciple who asks his rabbi, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words,’ the words of Torah “upon [our] hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
Well, we need to keep on talking, keep on placing those words of justice on top of hearts throughout the nation, keep spreading the conversation wide and far, keep talking about Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and Sandra Bland and the list goes on, keep sending out images of blacks and whites side by side and sometimes hand in hand on this march, Torah scrolls next to American flags, with mayors joining the march, with passersby suddenly joining the march as they are moved until the hearts of the people open and the words, the words of justice and equality and the means to get there just fall in.
Let me conclude by sharing a moment that opened my own heart a bit further.
When our bus was departing to head to the site of the march start, a group of older women, members of the local NAACP came by. They got ushered onto the bus and after a few miles, began to question what was happening and where we were headed. It turns out these women of some advanced age had come to the march as volunteers – to make sandwiches, not to march for upwards of 20 miles a day. One was wearing dress shoes and another was wearing sandals.
But they found themselves getting off the bus like the rest of us and they placed themselves right up near the front. We began to walk relatively briskly and they began to belt out spirituals. I carried our Torah scroll and it suddenly felt much lighter in my arms than it should have as their voices filled the air. The Torah, in many ways, laid down the lyrics to the songs they sung for our Torah is ultimately the story of justice, of redemption, of physical slavery leading towards spiritual freedom. While I carried a beacon of justice, they sang of it. And you couldn’t help, but join in.
Aint gonna let nobody turn us around
Aint gonna let nobody turn us around
We’re gonna keep on walkin’
Keep on talkin’
Marchin’ up to Freedom Land