Reflections On Hillel's Etgar Civil Rights Tour
By Emma Friese, Emory '24
“On three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace.” - Pirkei Avot 1:18
As a white Jew, I have spent a lot of time considering my minority identity. To be both a victim and a beneficiary of white supremacy is difficult to reconcile. Undoubtedly, I benefit from white privilege, but I also carry the weight of centuries of generational trauma. I have the digestive issues to prove it. In identity, as in allyship, intersectionality is everything. If we want to be effective advocates for ourselves and for others, we need to understand the nuances of our position in the patriarchal, white-supremacist, Christian hegemony. For me, the ETGAR Civil Rights Trip presented an opportunity to explore these questions of identity and allyship. Service and social action have always constituted cornerstones of my personal Jewish identity, but the trip pushed me to consider: What is my obligation, as a Jew, to support non-Jewish victims of state-sanctioned violence? and How can I use Jewish values to frame my civil rights education and support the ongoing plight of Black Americans?
The ultimate mission of the ETGAR civil rights trip is the pursuit of justice. Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and education is essential to that arc. Our first activity on the trip was to watch a TedTalk by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Underscoring their countless civil rights initiatives, including providing counsel to death row clients and opening the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, EJI operates under the central dogma that we have yet to achieve true civil equality for all Americans. We must continue to work towards justice. This means overhauling our criminal justice system, instituting widespread voter reform, and ending poverty because, as Stevenson stated in his TedTalk, “The opposite of poverty is justice.” Poverty, like racial discrimination, is not by chance; it is the result of systematic oppression and bias, a consequence of a state-sanctioned agenda of disenfranchisement. This perspective on poverty runs counter to the wistful narrative of the American Dream, but we must peel back the layers of this facade in the search for truth.
The most harmful lies are often the ones we tell ourselves. Motivated by discomfort, we convince ourselves the horrors of history were not really that bad, right? We dodge responsibility. We tell ourselves that what happened was horrible, but it has nothing to do with me. Both of these mentalities are manifestations of ignorance. Education, both in the classroom and through experience, is the most powerful weapon to fight ignorance. On our first stop on ETGAR, we visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, colloquially known as the Lynching Memorial. From afar, I noticed the stark contrast of the memorial, constructed from dark metal, against the tall ivory buildings along the Montgomery skyline. As we entered the memorial, we descended in a walkway obstructed by rows and rows of tall metal boxes. I paused in front of one of the first rusted boxes, eye-level with the engraved name of a lynching victim from not even 100 years ago. As I stood, I realized it was the size of a coffin- that I could fit inside it. As my eyes glazed over the 4,000 names of lynching victims from across the country, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of violence. Ignorance was impossible. Reading the box inscribed with “Dekalb County,” I wrestled with the guilt of a bystander. As we moved further into the memorial, we sank lower while the boxes remained high, until we walked below them. We craned our necks in unison to read the counties engraved on the bottoms of the boxes. Our heads tilted towards the sky, we simulated both the victims and the victimizers of lynching. We placated nauseating thoughts about being hung with the grotesque images of those who spectated for sport, looking to the hanging trees with glee. I would not dare lie to myself after such an experience.
Sometimes we skew the truth to view history with rose-colored glasses, as with the history of Jews in the Civil rights movement. Jews often declare with pride that we marched right alongside Dr. King, that we were among the fiercest supporters of the Civil Rights movement, but “there were Jews on both sides of the Edmund Pettis Bridge.” Yes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Hershel marched through Selma with Dr. King on March 21, 1965, but the Jewish community at the time exiled him. Before the Lehman Brothers formed their global financial empire in New York, they made a fortune from cotton plantations in Montgomery, Alabama. Small Jewish businesses pioneered racial integration, but William J. Levitt, a grandson of a Rabbi, banned black families from buying homes in his suburban developments, namely “Levittown.” Such developments spurred the country-wide phenomenon of “White Flight,” and many of the effects of this de facto segregation remain strong today. The true history of Jewish contributions and obstructions to the Civil Rights movement, like everything, is nuanced. We must face history, especially where we were wrong.
Dr. King led a revolution, not of hate, or anger, but radical love. After centuries of forced servitude, second-class citizenship, threats of terror, and more, black Americans had every right to seek vengeance from the American government. But in nearly every act of the Civil Rights Movement, from marches to counter sit-ins to economic boycotts, peace remained a hallmark. Like in Judaism, Dr. King’s Christian faith informed him that violence does not sanction violence. The Civil Rights movement was so powerful and likely reached widespread success because it was peaceful. However, when discussing peace on a larger scale, we must never mistake it with the status quo. When fighting for justice, and often when telling of the truth, we must “disturb the peace.” So the popular protest chant goes, “No Justice, No Peace!” The status quo may be quiet and comfortable for some, but it hinges on active violence and exploitation of others, as was the case with the segregation of Black Americans, as was the era of chattel slavery, as it is today with mass incarceration. Many authorities, even those claiming to support Dr. King, reprimanded the Civil Rights Movement for causing chaos, for being untimely. But Black Americans were already living in a state of chaos, never experiencing peace under the status quo of American society. True peace never requires the sacrifice of truth or justice.
In the weeks since returning from the ETGAR Civil Rights Trip, I have spent much time reflecting on the themes of Truth, Justice, and Peace, both as Jewish values and in the context of the Civil Rights movement. I know more than ever, as a Jew, a white person, a student, as a future lawyer, that I must continue to educate myself, take responsibility for my complicity in white supremacy, and put in the work to dismantle it.