The last day of any mission, trip or conference leads one to think about travel and arriving safely at home. I mean, what could this last morning offer us that could possibly match the power and intensity of the previous two?
The answer was not long in coming. We began, as we had done the previous day, in study. Instead of text, we were guided in history by our esteemed colleague, Rabbi Bernard Mehlman, Emeritus Rabbi of Temple Israel in Boston. With the aid of video materials prepared by Rabbi Gary Zola of the American Jewish Archives, we learned the stories of senior colleagues who served in the South, rabbis whose names we recognized but whose stories were unknown to us.
For we had reached the moral crossroads of our journey to Montgomery and Selma. What had the Jewish community done in the face of rigid segregation and the violence employed to maintain it? We like to bring out the names of Reform rabbis who traveled South to stand with Dr. King We mention Jews who were jailed, beaten and even killed during the tumultuous fight for civil and voting rights for African-Americans. But most of them came from the North. They played their valiant part and returned home, singed but not burned. The Reform rabbis who lived in the communities of the South, who served Jews whose lives and livelihoods were at stake, had to balance a tightrope taut with fear and danger.
Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, Mississippi, Rabbi Milton Grafman of Birmingham, Alabama and Rabbi Charles Mantiband of Florence, Alabama and Hattiesburg, Mississippi were on the front lines as much as the more famous Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of Atlanta, if not more. In a big city like Atlanta, you could find allies for equality. In small cities like those mentioned above, one’s capacity to serve, one’s ability to survive, was much more tenuous.
They were in physical danger from racists, but often without support in their own congregations. Jews were afraid of losing their jobs, having their businesses torched and their homes firebombed. Their fear was real and legitimate. But from gradualists like Rabbi Grafman to those who took public stands against racism like Rabbi Mantiband, they stood and withstood pressures that I cannot imagine in my own rabbinate (despite once coming face to face with the notorious James Wickstrom of the Posse Comitatus in northern Wisconsin in 1987).
We then visited a holy place, the parsonage of Dr. Martin Luther King when he served in Montgomery. Dr. Shirley Cherry guided us from the visitors’ center and told the story of the street we were on, how the neighbors opened their homes to the Freedom Riders from the North and hid them from the Klan. She told of us Vera Harris, who lived four doors down from the parsonage where we stood and how she had personally fed and cared for those brave activists. She told us that Vera was in her mid-90’s and was in hospice care at home. All of us, 48 rabbis strong, would go that morning to her house and pray for her body and soul, that her passing from this world to the next might be without pain and in peace.
Dr. Cherry took us from room to room in Dr. King’s house, starting with the front room that had been bombed while he was preaching at church. Coretta and her baby were there, but in a back room and miraculously emerged unhurt. From there we went looked into the bedrooms and the saw the simple way the King family lived. I was fascinated, as were my colleagues by the small study packed floor to ceiling with books and a writing desk. She showed us the lovely dining room table where Dr. King would sit with his family for dinner and eat with guests, the simple and the high and mighty.
But the real sacred space in that home was the kitchen. Dr. Cherry told us of Dr. King’s long, sleepless night after the bombing, when he was receiving 30-40 calls with hate and death threats each day. He went into the kitchen, heated up some coffee and paced the floor to think of what to do. He sat down and had his epiphany. His enemies had hatred, guns and bombs. He had faith, but felt despair.
Dr. King pleaded with God, saying, “I think the cause we are fighting for is right, but I’m losing my courage…” And he heard his inner voice call him by name and say, “Martin Luther, stand up for justice, stand up for righteousness, and lo, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the world.” And all of the fears left him, Dr. Cherry said. He went on standing for justice and righteousness until the moment he was struck down by the assassin’s bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Into Dr. King’s kitchen chair Dr. Cherry had placed Rabbi Jonah Pesner. I don’t think she knew that he is the extraordinary, inspirational head of our Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, which has placed fighting racism at the top of Reform Judaism’s agenda. As she described the divine experience of Dr. King during his long, lonely night of the soul, Rabbi Pesner, sitting in that simple chair, wept freely, as did many of us with him.
She led us out to the Peace Garden behind the house where we gathered for the final time. Dr. Cherry repeated what she he had declared to us over and over again that morning. She said with all of her passion and inner fire that, “love is the ultimate security in the time of ultimate vulnerability.” She concluded by saying that there are things in this world that will break your heart, but you must not let them break your spirit.”
These three days have wrenched my soul. I have been touched by colleagues, scholars and heroes I had never known. I have re-learned the lesson of our age, that radical hatred must be met head on with radical love. Violence may win for a moment but faith and love and justice will prevail in the end, even if that is only be achieved beyond my lifespan. This I believe with every fiber of my being. By this ideal I will live the rest of my life. For this I commit my head, hand and heart.
This is the prayer of my life. All from three days in Alabama’s furious past and thorny present. Just three days to kindle within a spirit of fire, the fire of memory and justice.
Rabbi Jamie Gibson serves Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, PA.