Last week, the Alabama House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill setting up a procedure to pardon the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women on a train over eighty years ago. The bill, which had unanimously passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who has said he will sign it.
For seven years, The Scottsboro Boys endured a series of trials they could not win. All but the youngest member of the group, whose ages ranged from 13 to 19, were sent to death row after false accusations from the women and convictions by all-white juries.The case became synonymous with racial injustice and set important legal precedents, including a Supreme Court decision that outlawed the practice of systematically excluding African Americans from juries.
According to the LA Times, “Advocates believe the bill is a chance to correct some of the injustices of a bleak period in the nation’s racial history as well as a chance to show that things are different in the modern South.”
This gesture by a community of legislators in 2013 is an important step for reconciliation, but I’d like to also bring attention to a community leader who showed bravery at the time of the trial: Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of Beth Or in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood apart from the crowd and stood up for his beliefs about the mistreatment of the boys.
He was the only white clergyman to visit the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” in prison and was instrumental in connecting them to a team of lawyers from International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the American Communist Party, for the appeal trial. Upon seeing the northern Jewish lawyers, the prosecuting attorney exclaimed: “Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York.” On Yom Kippur in 1932, Goldstein defied intimidation and defended the Scottsboro boys in his sermon.
Words like those spoken by the prosecuting attorney and Goldstein’s persistence deeply troubled Beth Or’s board of trustees. Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gunter informed board members that if Goldstein did any more to assist in the Scottsboro trials, the Ku Klux Klan would organize a boycott of Jewish businesses in the city. Without permission, Rabbi Goldstein spoke publicly at a rally for the Scottsboro Boys. In April of 1933, Beth Or’s president Ernest Mayer informed Goldstein that he either had to quit his political activities or leave. Though two board members defended Goldstein, he presented his letter of resignation to the board the following day. Some confessed anonymously to the Montgomery Advertiser that they secretly sided with Goldstein. Nevertheless, Beth Or’s board published a press release declaring the congregation’s commitment to segregation.
The Scottsboro Boys’ legal team fought hard for many years to free the innocent men, but in the end could not overcome the systemic racism of the courts or the pervasive bigotry of the culture.
Rabbi Goldstein’s leadership, even his inevitable defeat, should remind us not to accept the status quo in our communities. These pardons, eighty years in the making, come too late for the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, and injustices persist in our judicial and penal systems to this day. May the actions of Rabbi Goldstein and all of those who fight for justice inspire us to struggle for equality and freedom, both for others and for ourselves.
Had you heard of the Scottsboro Boys? Did you know about Rabbi Goldstein’s outspoken defense of them?
On Tuesday night, I hosted a large Passover seder at my home in Jackson, Mississippi. Out of love for this Jewish dinner party, I may have opened my big mouth—then, inevitability, my door—to a few too many friends.
I realized this seder would be different as I prepared the charoset. Ever since I was old enough to wield a knife, I have been the one to slowly hand chop apples and walnuts for our family seder. It’s cathartic for me to count down the apples, add lemon juice so the apples won’t brown, and stir in the honey with my hands. After about two minutes of chopping, though, I realized my stack of apples was taller than usual; they went straight into the food processor – and this year, convenience trumped tradition, resulting in charoset with more liquid than usual.
Yikes! Why was I compromising my usual charoset consistency? Because I was too excited about sharing Passover, and ended up inviting 30 people for seder. And no, these weren’t just Jews who needed a place to go, I had 13 seder virgins! I chose to invite my non-Jewish friends and neighbors because most of them didn’t grow up in places with a significant Jewish population and had never been invited to help celebrate Passover. In fact, many of my guests don’t know many Jewish people besides, other than myself and other members of the ISJL staff.
We went through the seder with some moments of quiet reflection, and some of laughter and levity. I encouraged guests to read along with the Hebrew transliteration, and my heart swelled when everyone’s voices joined together for “Go Down Moses.” We had a surprisingly successful gefilte fish tasting, sang a song about the afikomen to the tune of “Oklahoma” and answered a lot of questions about matzah.
Was it the most traditional or religious seder? No, not by any means. But I made that clear to my guests and encouraged them to take home the haggadahs to study up for next year. But even with soggier charoset, I’m glad that I was able to provide some of my guests their first Jewish seder experience.
I enjoy having my home filled with friends and food, so it’s understandable why I got so excited about hosting a Passover seder. It’s a tradition that lends itself to bringing people into your house and sharing a meal that’s interactive, educational and delicious. I’m already planning for next year—with a tent outside!—and you are all invited.
The image above comes from a collection of photographs and papers that belonged to Adele Marcus of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. According to the narrative sent by her cousin, Adele was the daughter of Lithuanian and Russian immigrants, and lived in Pine Bluff her entire life, from 1914-2000. We have a dozen of her papers from religious school, an Arkansas Jewish Assembly program in Hot Springs and her high school diploma. Like most of our collections, we also inherited a handful of unmarked photographs.
Investigating and interpreting unlabeled photographs is both a challenge and a pleasure for museum professionals and other scholars. This one in particular (M. Wiesman? Hanging bananas? Feather head dress!?) , inspired me to use it as a teaching example on how to think critically about historical images. I like to engage students in “Be the Historian!” activities that incorporate artifacts, photos and documents to uncover stories from the past.
A favorite resource I use is called Artful Thinking and comes from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They have developed teaching methods to help teachers use works of visual art and music in their curricula in ways that strengthen student thinking and learning. While these techniques were developed for young students to think critically about art, I’ve found that the same “thinking routines” can be adapted for studying historical photographs.
Used on a regular basis, a routine like the one below not only teaches critical thinking but also encourages students to make a habit of it.
I SEE / I THINK / I WONDER
Use the following series of questions to help explore this photo.
What do you see?
What do you think?
What do you wonder?
This set of questions helps guide students towards an understanding of what they are looking at. They can make make careful observations, thoughtful interpretations and stimulate curiosity for future learning.
So now great internet community of learners, it’s your turn! Try it out!
Click on the image to make it larger, stare into those Jewish merchants’ faces and be a part of the discussion here by answering the three questions. With enough seeing, thinking and wondering we will be able to better understand who these people were, what their community was like and how their experiences might relate to our own lives.