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?
We recently finished celebrating Passover, a holiday where “oppression” is an ongoing theme (and freedom, of course, is our cause to celebrate). We were challenged many times—through readings, traditions and symbolism—to experience the pain of oppression and celebrate the joys that accompany freedom. One particular text comes to mind: “In every generation a person is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he, was taken out of Egypt.”
This statement encourages us to put ourselves in the shoes of people who are oppressed and to imagine what it would mean for us—personally—to be freed. Awhile back, I came across a tool that might help us better meet this challenge. I find it to be a very valuable resource when I begin to contemplate what it must be like to be oppressed, and to be free, in our society:
This chart lists various tendencies that can be found among people who are in positions of privilege and oppression. As the authors make clear, these are not personality characteristics that we can presume based on someone’s position of power: privileged or oppressed. However, it provides a framework from which we may be able to look at the behavioral tendencies that are common among people who experience privilege and oppression. It enables us to better understand our society’s expectations of people in these different environments and the ways in which these expectations are internalized to impact the day to day lives of everyday people.
Think back to the opening of the Passover seder and our invitation to the poor to come join us for the Passover meal. There is a symbolic attempt to level the power imbalance between people who live in poverty and people who don’t. All too often, people living in poverty are forced to encounter people with behaviors that mirror those listed in the attached document. In this way, the poor in our society are often being oppressed. The idea that we open our seder tables to the poor, indicates a desire to sit alongside the poor, to get to know the poor, to better understand the poor and to treat people who are poor with dignity.
I hope that this chart provides our readers with a greater understanding of how power impacts our personal lives, the lives of fellow community members and of people around the world who are oppressed regularly. I also hope that it provides ideas on how to best fight oppression and ensure that all people, in every generation, have the experience of freedom.
What are your experiences with privilege and oppression? Do you find this chart useful?
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the tragic assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
While the entire world felt the loss of this leader, his dream lives on. He was one of many committed to furthering the cause of equality and justice.
Today, the Lorraine Motel has been converted into the incredible National Civil Rights Museum, documenting the troubled past while celebrating the victories achieved. While there is still much work to be done, there is also much pride in the movement’s continuing accomplishments.
Extinguishing one light, when so many others have been ignited, will not allow darkness to win.
Shalom, y’all, and may Dr. King’s memory – and dream – continue to be a blessing.