I know what strength is. Reflecting on marching in the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice, I witnessed true strength. Now back home in New Jersey returning from LaGrange, Georgia, my husband and I had joined the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ delegation of over 150 rabbis who are also representing the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center. We are taking turns supporting this 40-day march to Washington, DC. I sit here nursing sore muscles, while marveling that we actually walked 15 miles, all in one day, in August, in the South. And we also carried a 20-pound Torah, recalling the iconic photograph taken in Arlington National Cemetery of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, as he held a Torah scroll and marched next to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Yes, I feel strong for the physical feat, as I feel strong for engaging in action after I have felt so powerless watching tragic injustice after tragic injustice. I felt strong when I walked by Confederate flags, a pro-Confederate flag billboard, a Confederate monument, and scowling faces uttering rude comments. Yet, I felt proud that the majority of spectators, representing all races, were supportive or nicely inquisitive. They honked, waved, and leaned out of cars to ask about our unexpected parade, protected by the local police and state troopers. I smiled as mothers brought out their young African-American sons to see us walk by. Our leaders shouted that we were walking for them, so that they could get an education, stay out of jail, and have hope for justice.
However, the true strength I witnessed was in the elders who led our march and carried the American flag. These men, beaten and brutalized so many decades ago, had marched with Dr. King during the original Freedom Marches. At their age and health condition, they deserve to sit or try some gentle exercise classes. Yet, they are dedicated to walking much of 18-22 miles a day for 40 days! Every night they will wrap blistered feet, sleep on uncomfortable cots and rise at 5 a.m. to walk with dignity. They are finding the physical strength to match their passion for justice. I also saw strength in a group of five women who joined the march, representing their local NAACP chapter. These five African-American grandmas showed up looking like they were ready to visit the shopping mall. Some did not even have sneakers or proper walking shoes. Instead, they wore their summer jewelry and sandals! They walked and sang uplifting church hymns in beautiful harmony. When our leaders announced that the last stretch would be walked at a pace double our normal stride, just as the heat index hit its peak at 120, these ladies dug in for the last miles with determination. Additionally, I witnessed strength in the young people, the next generation of NAACP professionals and volunteers, who have dedicated themselves to fighting injustice. Finally, I marveled at the strength of the woman, an African American community activist and organizer, who showed me the well-known photograph of herself at age 18 in 1996 throwing herself on a stranger suspected of being a white supremacist as an angry mob sought to attack him. She continues to have the strength to smile every day as she dedicates her life to bettering our nation.
During the walk, our shift of rabbis sang “Ozi v’zimrat yah, vay’hi li liy’shua. God is my strength and might; God will be my salvation. (Exodus 15:2)” I know I am blessed to have witnessed God’s strength working through so many amazing people. May the marchers continue to be endowed with strength to see the justice journey home.
Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the editor of and a contributing author to The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethics.