“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”
This week, as part of the CCAR rabbinical convention in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to explore the Civil Rights movement, through a tour of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, lectures from leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, and a visit to The Temple, Atlanta’s historic Reform synagogue, which was bombed by White Supremacists in 1958.
Among other exhibits, the Civil Rights Center has a wonderful movie about the Freedom Riders, those black and white young people who spent the summer of 1961 riding integrated buses across the South, challenging segregation laws. Who endured beatings and arrests to make their point about the injustice of segregation. The film ended with a song from the Civil Rights movement: “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”
I know that song. I know every word of it! I sang it as a kid at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the Reform Jewish camp in Utica, Mississippi, along with folk songs and Hebrew songs that expressed our Jewish values. In fact, it probably wasn’t until adulthood that I realized “Woke Up This Morning” wasn’t actually a Jewish song. I suspect that this Civil Rights songs had become one of “our” songs because the earliest counselors and campers of that Deep South camp, which was founded in the early 70s, had been immersed in the struggle for Civil Rights during the previous decade.
I grew up in the South, but since today I live far away in Canada, it’s easy to forget how real the Civil Rights Movement is – how recent, and how nearby. I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 16 years after Governor George Wallace stood on the auditorium steps in that city to block the integration of the university. The events described in the Civil Rights exhibit take place largely in the states where I was born and where I grew up, and largely within my parents’ lifetime. In fact, this past Tuesday as I heard Joseph Levin, Jr, tell – in his strong Alabama drawl – the story of how he came to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center, I felt strangely at home. I grew up surrounded by those accents and those ways of thinking – by men and women who attended those universities and were members of those fraternities, who dress conservative but think liberal, who talk in old-fashioned Southern accents but act in courageous new ways in the fight for social justice. That is, in many ways, the Southern Jewish experience. It is something to be proud of.
Yes, I know the Civil Rights Movement isn’t about me, and it isn’t even about the Jews. It’s about the brave African Americans who stood up and demanded rights and equality. But it’s also about the white, black, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim allies who stood with them in the demand for a more just society. And it is about those of every place and time who know that our world is not yet as it should be.
I rarely encountered overt racism or anti-Semitism growing up in the South in the 80s and 90s. My Temple was not bombed. My schools were at least nominally integrated. My Jewish youth group and camp experiences were positive, happy, and healthy. And yet the old issues were not far beneath the surface. There were the occasional worrisome comments. The racial integration of our schools existed only on the surface – I remember distinctly that in one of the high schools I attended in Baton Rouge, the white and black kids essentially kept to themselves. When former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana, I was floored by how many of my 7th grade classmates in New Orleans supported him. It is clear to me in hindsight that these were indications that the South is still struggling with issues of Civil Rights and racial equality. There is still work to be done.
Today I live far from the South. In fact, as a resident of Toronto, I live in a city that prides itself on being diverse, progressive, and welcoming. There is a level of diversity and coexistence evident on the streets, on the subways, and in my kids’ schools that still astounds me every day. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hate. We have had our JCC bomb threats, our racially motivated killings, and our mosque attacks as well. We may not be Alabama in the 1960s, but neither can we fool ourselves that we are we living in a society free of bigotry. That is why we must continue to build relationships, why we must create bridges of understanding, knowledge, and acceptance between different faith and ethnic communities. And it is why we must speak out loudly – no matter who we are or where we live – against hate and injustice in all its forms.
Last month, when 6 worshipers tragically lost their lives in a hate-motivated attack on a mosque in Quebec City, synagogues throughout Toronto organized “Circles of Peace” around the local mosques, singing and praying in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. The members of my congregation wanted instead to attend Friday prayers at a local mosque with whom we have a relationship. And when we did, and when we were warmly welcomed by our friends at the mosque, we discovered that 2 churches were also in attendance. On that Friday, Muslims, Christians, and Jews sat together, raising their voices in prayer that someday our world will be a place of tolerance and freedom for people of all races, religions, and backgrounds.
“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”
There are moments in history that call for clarity of purpose. May we look to the examples of the past, to the brave men and women who have fought for justice and equality, and may we be inspired to stand together with those who are different from us, and to stand up for what is right.
Rabbi Micah Streiffer serves Temple Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada.