#BlackLivesMatter, and Reform Jews Can't Turn Away
About a month ago, I walked along a street in Memphis with 11 teens from my congregation, a chaperone and our educator, Brad Cohen. The day before, we had volunteered at the Dorothy Day House, cleaning a basement, spreading mulch and helping three young boys make birthday cards and a cake to surprise their mom. Now we walked via Beale Street (Birthplace of the Blues) to the National Civil Rights Museum housed in the Loraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. On the way, we passed a mural depicting a black man holding a sign that read, "I AM A MAN." My teens wondered aloud what it could mean. One said, “Of course he’s a man, what else would he be?”
At the museum we came upon an exhibit that explained the campaign in April of 1968, the fateful reason Dr. King was in Memphis. He had come to join the striking sanitation workers protesting unsafe and degrading working conditions; they were protesting the inhumanity of a city government that not only mistreated them when they were alive, but barely flinched at the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. As black men, Cole and Walker were not allowed to seek cover from the rain except in the back of the truck with the garbage. When the truck mechanism misfired, they were crushed to death. In the protests that followed, "I AM A MAN" affirmed that they and their mostly black fellow workers were not garbage; they were people.
As we walked away from the museum, one of my teens said, “You probably feel this way too, but I keep wondering what will be my generation’s fight.” I told her that I often wonder the same thing.
Two weeks later, I found myself watching as my own city of Baltimore erupted in violent echoes of the history we had just studied in Memphis. I stood in the hotel lobby where I was attending the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Consultation on Conscience and realized that the words on the protestors’ signs, #BlackLivesMatter, were simply a millennial way of saying "I AM A MAN." In the 1960s, Echol Cole and Robert Walker were men. In 2015, Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice’s lives matter.
This time, it wasn’t a worker crushed in the back of a garbage truck, but a young man who died pleading for help in the back of a police van. This time, instead of Memphis, a city that was only a few years past the end of Jim Crow and legally enforced segregation, it is Baltimore, a city that remains largely segregated not by law but by economics, racial politics and the War on Drugs.
That Friday, before Shabbat, members of my congregation joined me at City Hall in a march for justice. One week later, we came together with members of a primarily African-American church from Baltimore. We studied Psalm 137 and shared some of our fears, our anger, our hopes. We have planned to come together again, to learn about each other, to begin a dialogue that will be real and deep and very difficult. A young woman from my congregation said that her heart had suddenly cracked wide open. She had known about racial inequality and injustice before, she had cared before, but now she could not look away.
I can’t either.