I am honored to be part of this scholar in residence weekend when we welcome Joseph Levin, co-founder of SPLC, the Southern Poverty Law Center. Lakeside Congregation has always welcomed diverse opinions, because there is always more to learn. We welcome our friends from Congregation Solel, Har Shalom and around the community.
I am especially honored that the event committee asked me to share the story of civil rights advocacy in my family and how it shapes my life. It is always meaningful to me when I get to remember my parents, and pay tribute to what they did for me and for the world. There is a lot to tell, so I can only scratch the surface.
My mother, Dorothy Ann Levin, was born in the south. Her family moved to Miami in 1925 when she was a little girl. Many civil war veterans and former slaves were still alive. The first sidewalk in the city went by her house, and though the city was growing rapidly it was truly a southern town.
Anti-Semitism was common. As a teenager my mom tried to find a hotel to host the National Honor Society induction ceremony. She was rebuffed by inquiries of whether there would be any children of the “Jewish persuasion” participating. She knew that there was going to be at least one.
Beyond the explicit Anti-Semitism, there was the obvious racism. The hotel managers didn’t need to ask if there were black children in the National Honor Society. Schools were segregated, so the name of the school (my mother attended Robert E Lee Elementary School) itself meant there would be no black children involved.
My mother was the first to say that she did not as a child and teenager recognize the racism around her. It was simply the way things were. If you saw blacks at all, they were the help, and they were supposed to remain invisible. They would step off the curb to let white pedestrians pass.
My father grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York. As a kid he and his brothers worked in my grandfather’s used furniture (some might say junk) business. They worked alongside African Americans moving furniture. During the racing season they picked up a little extra money shoveling horse stalls with black people. He lived, not in a world of equal rights, but one that was more integrated.
My parents met and married during World War II. They spent the war on Army bases in Georgia and Florida. It was my father’s first experience of the deeply racist south, and he was appalled by it. My mother always credited him with opening her eyes. That is what it takes, sometimes. Someone to help you see what has always been there if you just knew to look .
As we grew up, the city of Miami changed. We used to joke that Florida is the only state where you have to drive north to get south. But even so, racism was endemic in Miami, where my siblings all attended schools that were 100% white, where we learned that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk who got lucky, and where we used to get a day off from school on Robert E. Lee’s birthday. It is true that when debate was going on about whether to have a holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, one Florida state senator suggested that we celebrate Dr. King and Robert E. Lee on the same day. He said, “That way everyone will have something to celebrate.” People in Miami were a little less likely to say things like that out loud, but it was as segregated as any city in the south.
When we were kids we used to drive from Miami to New York in the summer to see family. This was before the interstate system was completed, so we used to get up at 3am to make some time and get off the Florida and Georgia surface roads as quickly as possible. Along the way we would stop at gas stations, with colored bathrooms and water fountains. As the sixties wore on the “white” and “colored” signs disappeared, but the facilities were still there and the culture didn’t change very much.
My most vivid memory of these trips is crossing the Georgia border at Valdosta. There was a large billboard, freshly painted, of hooded men on horseback. It said, “The United Klans welcome you to Georgia.” It was terrifying. I had a similarly dark experience in the tourist mall of Underground Atlanta, where the former state governor, the racist Lester Maddox, had a store where he sold axe handles They were souvenirs. Burned into the wood it said, “n-word beater.” Take one home for your very own!
It was intimidating and disgusting. To the present day if I am in the south I will not be at the “Dixie Diner,” or anywhere that brandishes a confederate flag. If you are still celebrating the confederacy, no matter how you may cloak it in “heritage” or “state’s rights,” you are still siding with the people who beat people instead of serving them lunch, who still turned me and my friends away from the door of a diner because one of us was wearing a Jewish star.
Once your eyes are open you can’t really choose to close them again, and that was the story for my mother. She began to fight racism wherever she saw it. In 1960 she was among those who helped integrate the lunch counter at Burdines Department Store. She got involved in the League of Women Voters and organized voter registration drives in the African American neighborhoods of Miami. My brother considers the experience of helping people register to vote before he was of age himself to be one of the most important experiences of his life.
My mother taught all of her kids to “stand up, show up, and speak up.” She taught us to fight against poverty and injustice.In the Jim Crow south the justice system, the educational system, and the economic system kept black people down. Jim Crow has mutated but it is not gone. The same system that oppresses African Americans in the south keeps them in the neighborhoods of Chicago’s south and west side, and allows people like me, many of us, to maintain our white privilege.
Though few of us have ancestors who owned slaves, as most Jews came to America after the Civil War, we are still beneficiaries of a corrupt system. We shouldn’t forget that there are Jews in many hues; Jews by birth and by choice, from Africa, the Middle East, China and India. But if white Jews don’t recognize how they have been allowed to transform from colored to white, and don’t work to make things better, we are complicit. It is easy to tell ourselves that we love everybody and wouldn’t have a problem having African American neighbors. But we do nothing to help people move up the economic ladder. When one of our local congregations, Zion Lutheran Church, proposed building some affordable housing on their property, some of the neighbors went into a “not in my backyard,” frenzy. People who would never ever define themselves as racist protected their white privilege with arguments about traffic and property values. I went to the plan commission to speak in favor of the church. That there was not a single person of color in the room may tell you all you need to know.
While we don’t have poll taxes or voting tests anymore, the new Jim Crow controls the electorate through criminal prosecution. In most states being convicted of a crime purges you from the voting roll. In some you can lose your vote permanently, in others you may apply to be reinstated after you serve your term plus parole and probation. Our country has more people in prison than any other. The poor and people of color are more likely to be convicted, so disenfranchisement falls disproportionately on them.
There is a reason that the Attorney General opposes legalization of Marijuana. If marijuana is legal the prison pipeline gets disrupted and more people of color will be able to vote. There may even be legal standing for those who lost their voting rights to regain them through the courts. The last thing Attorney General Sessions wants is to enfranchise minorities and the poor. That he can couch that in terms of his love for “law and order,” is a bonus.
Many Lakeside kids have had a brush with the law. They might have to do a few service hours. Then their records are expunged. Meanwhile the Cook County Jail is the largest in the country. It is full of people awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail. If they are students they flunk out, if they work, they lose their jobs for being unable to attend, all before they get their day in court. Many plead out so they can get to work and then they have a record that keeps them from voting and perpetuates the cycle of poverty and hopelessness. In a nation as evenly divided as ours, those who are not allowed to vote could be the margin between victory and defeat.
Growing up in Miami, there were times I could have been arrested. My brother did get caught. Even though he spent time in prison, I saw firsthand how white privilege and money worked. It led me to many volunteer hours in prisons. I have had the ironic experience of celebrating the seder, our festival of freedom, in a Florida prison. A lot of folks joined us to get the four glasses of wine. It is heartbreaking to hand out books from the prison library as I did in the Milwaukee stockade, and find that prisoners wanted coloring books because they couldn’t read anything more challenging. Every study shows that race and income play a decisive role in who gets convicted, who serves time, and therefore, who doesn’t get a second chance.
These issues are at the forefront of civil rights today. That’s why I marched with the NAACP on a small part of their journey from Selma to Washington D.C. As I arrived with my daughter, Vered, the first person I met had adopted the name “Middle Passage,” after the journey slave ships took from Africa to the West Indies. He and I sat together at breakfast in North Carolina, and bonded over a bowl of grits. Nothing makes me happier than good grits, and for some reason you northerners just don’t get it. Middle Passage carried the American flag every day for 800 miles. I walked beside him carrying a Torah for a small part of that walk. I got the feeling that some of my rabbinic predecessors, my heroes, like Joachin Prinz, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Maurice Eisendrath got when they walked with Dr. King.
We walked into downtown Raleigh, and I stood by Reverend William Barber, a giant of a man, and a giant in civil rights today. On the steps of the state capitol we called for equal voting rights for all Americans. It was Reverend Barber at the Democratic Convention last year who referred to Jesus as a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew. One can only wonder what kind of “extreme vetting” Jesus would get if he tried to come back today.
I recently went to Washington, DC for the day to march from the Martin Luther King Memorial to the Justice Department on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The march was made up of ministers, priests, imams, Buddhist and Christian monks and nuns, Hindus and Sikhs and, of course, rabbis. We went to the Justice Department to demand equal rights, justice reform, and votes for all citizens. One of the ministers said, “Jesus wouldn’t be welcome in Trump’s America, [but] Trump [should worry that he] won’t be welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
On that day Reverend Jim Wallis referred to racism as “America’s original sin,” and called on everyone there to preach from every pulpit that we must confront the evil of racism. It is up to us to denounce racism throughout our society. Even pizza makers have to do it. Being colorblind is not good enough. We also need to recognize how the institutions that have been so good to white folk, are not blind to the color of our fellow citizens. It is not enough to have a black friend, or to wish we had a black friend. We have to recognize our own privilege and work to even the playing field. We don’t have to give up our own slice of the pizza, but we have to work to make the pie bigger so that everyone has an adequate slice.
Start anywhere you like. For me it has been about justice reform and voting rights and access to healthcare, but just recognizing that this is not yet the land of equal opportunity is a start. Ceilanne pointed out a sign in our neighborhood the other day, “Drive like your children lived here.” She suggested the underlying message is that we only care for our own children. What do we have to do to understand that other children are also precious? I went to Ferguson with my youngest daughter, Elisha. We walked and chanted with supporters of Black Lives Matter, “Whose kids, our kids.” They all deserve safe streets and all deserve the opportunity to learn, to work, and to vote. This is not yet the land of equal opportunity for people of color and for the immigrant and the poor, not even for women, even though they are not a minority. Until we recognize that all of them are our children, then this will never be the “more perfect union” our founders hoped we would achieve.
That is why I have to fight my own complacency. It is easy to just care about our own family and community. Easy to say I’m too busy, it’s too far to drive, it’s outside my comfort zone. I have to stand up, show up and speak up and be an ally in the march toward justice, because that is what my parents taught me.
I’m proud of their legacy of civil rights and I hope that I am pushing the envelope a little more. I have tried to teach it to my kids, and I am proud of them. One of these days, hopefully in their generation if not yet in ours, we will reach the mountaintop and equality will go from a dream to a reality.
Ken y’hee ratzon.