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Liberty and Justice for All: Reflections from My Civil Rights Tour

05/09/2024 11:14:26 AM


Rabbi Steven Lindemann

I attended services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, this past Sunday.  That’s where 40 of us from TBS began our Civil Rights tour, organized by our Social Advocacy Committee and flawlessly led by Zach and Terri Oppenheimer. 

It is not possible for me to tell you about everything we experienced on this extraordinary journey that was both educational and deeply emotional. So let me start off by inviting you to hear more from members of our group this Shabbat morning, after services and kiddush.

For now, I need to confess that I set out on this trip with some misgivings - not about my commitment to civil rights, but because of the positions taken by many in the Black Lives Matter Movement post October 7.  

We began our visit at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was raised and later became Pastor.  As we entered the church, we were greeted warmly by a series of deacons who welcomed us. Several added some additional words to make us feel more comfortable: “Welcome, we know this is a difficult time for you.”  And that’s the way it was throughout the trip. Our presence was appreciated. We were welcomed with open arms and hearts. So, I was reminded that our commitment to civil rights is not transactional; that it is absolute. The Black community is no more monolithic than the Jewish community. We still have much we share in the ongoing effort to create a “more perfect union” in this country.

So, the Ebenezer Baptist Church was the perfect place to begin, both because of the words of welcome, and, because it was the church where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and later became Pastor. King, like many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, was inspired by the prophetic texts of the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament.  That is, in part, what brought Martin Luther King and Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel together.  Heschel had written a book about the Prophets, in which he explained their compelling capacity to call for social justice:  “He ( the prophet) is struck by the glory and presence of God, overpowered by the hand of God. Yet his true greatness is his ability to hold God and man in a single thought” (The Prophets, p. 21).  

Many of the clergy who worked with Reverend King carried paperback copies of Heschel’s book in their pockets. They studied it. They felt that they were echoing the prophetic voice. Heschel, too, had the capacity to hold God and man in a single thought, and he translated that thought into action by participating in the famous March for Civil Rights from Selma to Montgomery, in 1965.

Martin Luther King would frequently cite a passage from the Book of Amos (5:24): “Let Justice flow down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Later on that first day of the trip, at the headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative, in Montgomery, Alabama, we visited a monument to the martyrs of the struggle for civil rights. Their names are inscribed on a granite disc, over which water continuously flows.

And above, is the quotation from Amos, as King spoke it.

The words of Amos convey a powerful universal message for all people. 

The struggle for civil rights must continue  in this country, until there is truly “liberty and justice for all.”  As Americans, and as Jews, we have always felt called to this effort. That is why the TBS Social Advocacy Committee felt it was important to organize our trip, and that is why I hope you will join us to hear more about our experiences, after services and Kiddush, this Shabbat.

You will also hear more of the prophecy of Amos, in the Haftarah for this Shabbat. The Prophet who brought a message about justice that has come to have universal significance, also spoke to the Jewish people, in particular, with this message of hope: 

        “I will restore my people Israel. They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them;They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; They shall till gardens and eat their fruits. And I will plant them upon their soil, Nevermore to be uprooted from the soil I have given them - said the Eternal, your God.” (Amos 9:14-15)

On our TBS Civil Rights Trip, I was reminded that both messages, the universal and the particular, are still essential to our identity as American Jews. 

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784