Opinion | Journeying Into Civil Rights History

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The National Memorial for Peace and Justice
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Soniakapadia via Wikimedia Commons)

By Adam Garber

I’m walking through a forest of metal pillars in Alabama with Jews from across the country. The spiral of 6-foot rusted monuments seems endless — one for each county where a lynching was documented. Some are stamped with one name, some dozens, of the 4,000 known African Americans murdered between the end of the Civil War and the end of Jim Crow.

Piles and piles of shoes. All from Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Twenty-five years before my visit to Alabama, as a 10-year-old visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial for the first time, I understood the scope of the devastation that I’d heard about, read about and observed for years on Yom Hashoah.

We cannot compare atrocities. Yet, the destruction caused by these two atrocities — against Jews and African Americans — different in so many ways, share a scale of hate that pulls them together and makes each a defining experience for our two communities. Visiting the National Peace and Justice Memorial was part of a civil rights mission trip with Jewish Community Relations Council representatives to listen and learn about the nation’s history of racial injustice and the role of our community in righting wrongs.

When I agreed to join the trip as a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, I wasn’t sure what I would learn. Growing up in the South, I had visited numerous sites about the history of injustice and the civil rights movement. As a kid, we went to the King Center for school trips. My family visited the New Civil and Human Rights Museum for the second day of Rosh Hashanah (sorry, Rabbi). I learned about the temple bombing from my Pop Al and father, who belonged to the synagogue. The southern Jewish community, indeed most chevra, stood shoulder to shoulder with activists in the civil rights movement.

But like those shoes, I could not grasp the scope of the murderous regime that covered the country from Nebraska to Florida to Pennsylvania. There is one for Zacharias Smith of Chester County, who was dragged from his hospital bed already with terrible injuries and burned alive.

I start trying to read each county, every name. The monuments are inescapable. For the nation’s African Americans, to vote, organize, assert their equality or simply speak to the wrong person or be in the wrong place could lead to a death sentence, sometimes handed down on the courthouse lawn, and executed in the public square.

Over the three days, we heard directly from civil rights leaders who marched in Selma during Bloody Sunday. We joined Bishop Calvin Woods singing spirituals that were passed from generations of fighters for equality. And we discussed how the injustice of those times continues through the criminal justice system and through police shootings that imprison and kill African Americans disproportionately in each of our communities.

As a Jew, I wish everyone would go to Yad Vashem or the National Holocaust Memorial to grapple with the horrific scale. As an American, I wish everyone had to wander through these rusted memories of the racial terror of lynchings.

That is probably unrealistic — but if you want to understand further the connection between those times and the inequality we must still repair, I hope you’ll join the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia on our civil rights mission trip in January. If you can’t join the trip, you can still be part of the JCRC’s work in Philadelphia to build stronger ties between two historically oppressed communities and work together to repair the world.

Adam Garber is co-chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia’s Domestic Affairs Committee. For more information on the JCRC civil rights mission, go to jewishphilly.org/civilrightsmission.

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