This piece was jointly authored by Malkie Schwartz and Rabbi Jeremy Simons, reflecting on last night’s grand jury ruling in Ferguson, Missouri and sharing their insights and responses.
In light of the grand jury findings released last night, we may never know what actually happened on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. Some believe Michael Brown was shot without cause, while others—including the grand jury—believe the available evidence demonstrates Officer Darren Wilson felt his life was in danger and acted accordingly. We cannot know what happened in those 90 seconds, but we know what happened next:
Michael Brown’s body lay exposed on the pavement for more than four hours in full view of the public, including his family. We also know that later that night, a Ferguson police officer allowed his dog to urinate on the very spot. Lesley McSpadden, Michael’s mother, watched as police cars intentionally ran over the flowers she placed at the spot where her son was killed.
We also know residents of Ferguson began gathering and demanding justice. Had they not gathered, none of us would today know the name Michael Brown or be able to locate the town of Ferguson. Since August 9, hardly a week has gone by without news of another instance of police brutality. This is not because police brutality has increased dramatically these past five months; it’s because we’re finally being exposed to it.
Exodus teaches that we should not oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. According to the Talmud, the Torah repeats this commandment in various forms 36 times. Commandments involving the stranger often include mention of the widow and the orphan. These three categories represent those who are most vulnerable in society; those most likely to be abused. We can add to this list the impoverished and the historically oppressed. The town of Ferguson, where more than two-thirds of residents are African American and more than one in four children live below the poverty line, falls into this category.
The incredible repetition of this commandment signals more than just emphasis. The Torah is telling us something here: it’s acknowledging that our own inclination may be to ignore those who we do not know. It’s also telling us—thirty six times—that we cannot ignore them. It’s screaming for our attention because it knows our nature. Our Jewish tradition demands we join those across this country advocating for greater transparency and reform in our law enforcement communities. Just as our tradition recognized our own inclination may be to stand on the sidelines, it also warns of the consequence: the Mishnah teaches that the sword enters our world on account of justice delayed, and justice denied.
Justice is too often delayed, but it cannot be denied.
Yesterday, President Obama honored the lives of James Chaney, Michael Henry Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. The three men were honored along with 15 civilians who, the President said, “made the world stronger, wiser, more beautiful, and more humane.” It felt strange to see the families of people who lost their lives in pursuit of civil rights being honored alongside, well, Meryl Streep. But in his introduction of Ms. Streep, the President said “She inhabits her characters so fully and compassionately… It is the greatest gift of human beings that we have this power of empathy.”
Empathy. Empathy is what motivated civil rights workers to risk their lives and volunteer in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. After all, they weren’t going to sit by and feel badly for voters who were denied their right to vote. They felt connected to the reality faced by African American citizens in Mississippi and, together, they worked toward justice for all.
Only hours after the award ceremony, we learned that the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri found that there was no probable cause to indict Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Regardless of what we think about the outcome, this is a time to exercise that power of empathy. To try and imagine the anguish being felt by Michael Brown’s mother, his father, his family, friends and neighbors. To try and imagine what it must feel like to be a young African American living in one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country, and in a city where 63% of the residents are African American and only approximately 5% of the police force is African American. To be a young African American, and know your demographic makes up more than 85% of people stopped and more than 90% of the people searched in 2013 in your hometown. To be African American and keeping hearing about young, unarmed African Americans killed—by the people committed to “serve and protect.”
We are two white Jews, authoring this post; we know we cannot truly understand what it feels like to be Black in Ferguson, or America. But our power of empathy can help us try to do our part to make things better. Let us send an alternative message to all young people, particularly young African Americans, in our communities: We know that there is work to be done and we are willing to follow the lead of those who have historically been most disenfranchised, to do what it takes to make sure that all members of our community are cherished and respected. Justice may be delayed, but it cannot be denied.
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Today is Veteran’s Day. A rainy November Tuesday. I began my day at my computer, appreciating the Facebook statuses honoring veterans, noting the lovely Google Doodle honoring veterans, chuckling at an email from my eight-year old-cousin wherein she thanked various family members for their service and also “for getting me today off of schooooooool!”
Then I got an email from The Andrew Goodman Foundation, and learned that the President has named James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner as recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom— commemorating the lives they lost 50 years ago in an effort to bring justice and equality to Americans in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
The email stopped me in my tracks. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner are names to which I feel so personally connected. I have written about attending their annual memorial in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The ISJL spearheaded Jewish activists track in conjunction with this summer’s Freedom Summer 50. To be honest, I was surprised that this wasn’t an honor already bestowed on these heroes decades earlier.
Here is an excerpt of the statement from the White House: “James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were civil rights activists and participants in “Freedom Summer,” an historic voter registration drive in 1964. As African Americans were systematically being blocked from voter rolls, Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman, and Mr. Schwerner joined hundreds of others working to register black voters in Mississippi. They were murdered at the outset of Freedom Summer. Their deaths shocked the nation and their efforts helped to inspire many of the landmark civil rights advancements that followed.”
I thought about the word we used to describe the individuals who journeyed back to Mississippi this summer to share their stories of fighting for civil rights: veterans of the movement.
I thought about what I did one week ago, last Tuesday: I voted. I exercised the very right Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, and all of the civil rights volunteers—the veterans, and the victims—were working to ensure all citizens had.
I wish that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were in the news today being honored as veterans. But their Medal of Freedom comes posthumously. They are not veterans, but their memory is honored today—and there are many veterans of the movement still living and teaching us today. I think we should honor these veterans today, as well. Because while these three men, so tragically killed, have become public faces of the civil rights movement, they worked alongside many others.
So, while I honor all of those who served as soldiers and survived battles for our nation’s freedom, I have also been reminded to honor those who fought battles here at home, to extend that freedom to all. To that end, I wanted to share this video that my colleagues Rachel and Malkie sent my way. It will give you a small taste of the large impact made by the veterans who spoke to an audience in Jackson this past summer.
To all who fight for freedom, then, now, and always, you have our gratitude. This Veteran’s Day will also serve as a memorial day, and a reminder—this nation has been strengthened through the service and sacrifice of so many, and we honor that commitment to freedom.
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As we prepare for the new year ahead, we’ll be sharing several Southern & Jewish posts reflecting on “how we spent our summer.” Today’s post come from two guests who visited us down South, Jay Saper and Margot Seigle.
This May, the two of us—white Jews who grew up in the Midwest—traveled down to Mississippi. Inspired by emerging efforts to develop the South as a hub for cooperative enterprise, we sought to learn more at the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference. Like the Jews involved in the Civil Rights movement in the generations before us, we came South, too.
As we waited for the shuttle to pick us up from the Medgar Evers Airport to take us to Jackson State University, we strolled into an exhibit about the person after whom the airport was named. In 1954, Medgar Evers was appointed the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi. He traveled the state courageously advocating for Black rights.
Evers’ bravery came with a toll. After driving home on the evening of June 12, 1963, he took shirts reading “Jim Crow Must Go” out of the car to bring inside his home. He started up his driveway, but a bullet took his life before he could make it to the door.
The following year, building on Evers’ dedicated decade of organizing, a coalition of civil rights organizations launched Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was a summer of change – and of more loss. As we read the names of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman on the wall of the exhibit in the Jackson airport, we wondered at their legacy, and our own role in coming South.
At the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference we learned about an exciting way people in the South are working to challenge racism today: by building a democratic economy that meets their presently unmet needs. This approach to community resilience comes out of a long tradition documented by Jessica Gordon Nembhard in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.
We got to meet with John Zippert, a fellow Jew who has long acted in solidarity with Blacks in the South to advance racial and economic justice through the cooperative model. The son of refugees from Nazi Germany, Zippert was active in social struggles from a young age in New York City. In the summer of 1965, Zippert went South as a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality. He helped farmers looking for a better price on their sweet potatoes to set up a cooperative. Through this work he met Carol Prejean. The two would go on to be the first married interracial couple in Louisiana.
Since 1970, Zippert has been working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an organization that grew directly out of the Civil Rights Movement. The Federation works to maintain Black owned land and expand the use of cooperatives for economic development. It has been integral to challenging discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. In 2012, Tuskegee University inducted Zippert into the George Washington Carver Hall of Fame for his tireless dedication to those who are disadvantaged.
The organizers from Cooperation Jackson and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project communicated with us that the movement for economic democracy is building in exciting and powerful ways. There is still a lot of work to be done, and when we come together, that work can get done. That’s why we came South, and will continue to partner with the amazing individuals and groups fighting for social change today.