Acknowledging and Transforming our Legacies
As I got off the plane in Atlanta to march in America’s Journey for Justice, I was reminded of the last time I was there. It was earlier this year. I was there with my wife and our two kids, ages 6 and 8, and my in-laws. My wife’s parents live in Boston, but my father-in-law grew up outside of Atlanta. In fact, he grew up as a Baptist, and descends from people who had lived in Georgia since before the American Revolution. His ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Members of his family owned a plantation and owned slaves.
My father-in-law hated much of that world and ultimately ended up a Jewish college professor in the Boston suburbs. But my wife grew up visiting her grandparents and extended family in Georgia. Now, we wanted to take the kids to Georgia while my parents-in-law were still able to do so. The only problem, of course, is that we also had to explain the history of racism in America to them as well. Granddaddy’s family weren’t bad people, were they?
The trip was great, including visits to the Martin Luther King National Historic Site, Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Center for Civil and Human Rights, in addition to family cemeteries, churches and homes. But the question we had to answer for our kids we also had to answer for ourselves. And, I believe, so do all white people and also all Jews (white and otherwise): what is my part in the structural inequality in this country, and what am I going to do about it?
That’s why I was so happy to join this march, as an individual and as a rabbi. Like so many of us, I am sure, I desperately want to do something. And so, going and marching, meeting people and hearing their stories, was so powerful. Sitting in a church in LaGrange, Georgia, and hearing from state leaders in the fight to protect voting rights was just different than it ever could have been from my home in New York City. And feeling like an ally of the people I met, from all over the country, could not have happened at home either. Most of what I will do in the future is to continue organizing here in New York with communities across race, class and neighborhood for better access to good education and housing. But I am more motivated to do that work because of what I felt marching through the ancestral home of my children’s granddaddy.
On our second night in LaGrange, after learning at the teach-in about barriers to voting access in Georgia, one of the marchers got into conversation with the state trooper who was sitting in the back (the march has been accompanied by copious law enforcement). She asked him what he thought about what he had just heard. We had learned that one way people can be kept from voting is by demanding they produce documents they don’t have. Many poor, and often African-American, people in the South were born outside of hospitals and as a result don’t have birth certificates. “My father doesn’t have a birth certificate either,” this white state trooper reported. He now saw the issue in a new way.
Because of our fathers’ stories, our fathers’-in-law, and our own, we are all in this together. Our privilege, or our oppression, is entwined with the experience of every other person in our country. And we will all need to be a part of the solution.
David Adelson serves East End Temple in Manhattan.