“Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Freedom; stayed on Justice, stayed on Peace: Hallelujah!” –Sweet Honey and the Rock
These words punctuated our extraordinary Shabbat this past weekend. To listen, click the hyperlink.
Forty of us spent the day in Montgomery, Alabama exploring the evolution of slavery in America. Each stopping point along the way brought us closer to the chronicle of slavery’s true evolution; and allowed each of us to sift through our own identity as Jews encountering this narrative.
Montgomery, Al was both the most active slave trading port in the south, and the birthplace of the civil rights movement.
Our conversation began with an outline of Bryan Stevenson’s four institutions of slavery evolution: slavery itself, the racial terrorism that gave rise to violent lynching’s, slave leasing and criminal execution following slavery’s “legal” end; the Jim Crow era and finally, mass incarceration.
We sparked memories of growing up in the segregated and then newly integrated south; waking up to the understanding that not everyone was equal in that world. We spoke of growing up knowing you were the only Jew in town; remembering the derogatory comments or ignorance that sometimes came our way. We elevated our own stories encountering anti-Semitism and racial prejudice. I shared my story of encountering Nazi graffiti that desecrated my childhood synagogue.
We considered our Jewish journey from slavery to freedom to persecution throughout the world, as we uncovered and wove our way through the African American slavery narrative. We sought to lift up subtle and glaring similarities and differences in our histories.
Over lunch, we learned each other’s stories and formed a deeper sense of comradery, community and companionship that allowed us to share a deep and intense journey together.
We entered the EJI museum and suddenly we were in the heart of slavery in the Deep South. We walked through the front doors into the warehouse where slaves stood prior to the auction block; and we squeezed tightly together. Narratives of mothers ripped away from children; of husbands and wives torn from each other, of families broken apart forever, bombarded us as we inched our way through.
The deeper we moved into the museum the deeper we wove through the evolution of slavery. Stories of slaves gave way to lynching victims and criminal slave leasing victims, vitriolic signs shunning every “different” race and religion from the Jim Crowe era stood in the center of the room.
The voice of Dr. Martin Luther King echoed throughout, mingling with victims’ stories of racial violence and prejudice. Waves of thought and emotion crashed over me merging with those voices. I thought of the words of our freedom song “Michamocha,” and I heard the melody written by Hannah Tiferet (click the hyperlink to listen). She sets these words in minor driving rhythm and tone. Her setting echoes the desperate drive towards a freedom that arrives and then slips from one’s grasp as sand slips from one’s fingers, as the ocean slips between one’s toes. The driving rhythm is indicative of motivation and hope, of rising up again and again to overcome injustice.
Stay tuned for parts two and three of our journey to Montgomery over the coming weeks.