Earlier this week, in Oxford, Mississippi, two unidentified perpetrators placed a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue at the University of Mississippi. There was also an old Georgia state flag (which incorporated the confederate flag) draped around his shoulders.
James Meredith was the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss”
as it is still most commonly called. The campus has had several negative incidents of intolerance in the past few years – riots and racial slurs after President Obama’s re-election, heckling and homophobic remarks during a performance of The Laramie Project.
As a current undergraduate student at another college here in Mississippi, the first question that came to my mind when first hearing of this incident was: Where do we go from here?
I know this is not representative of that entire campus and community, but the fact remains that it happened (as did the heckling at the play, as did the racial slurs after the presidential election). It’s not enough to just not he perpetrators; we cannot just be bystanders. I grew up in the South and am certainly not a stranger to racial tension, but this is something much, much more deeply rooted and severe. It is something from which we cannot look away. I can’t escape it even if I wanted to – purely out of coincidence, I am going to Oxford this weekend to visit an old friend, now a student up there at Ole Miss, who happens to be African-American.
While I still look forward to the company of my friend, I will also feel a certain sense of dread sitting on the bus that will steadily edge closer to Oxford. In a way, this bus will be a time machine, taking me back to a Southern past I had assumed I would never experience firsthand.
Which brings me to my next question: As a white person with many close black friends, what is my own responsibility in improving race relations in our country?
In many ways living in the Deep South mirrors the experiences I had studying conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. In Belfast a peace agreement was signed in 1998, officially putting an end to The Troubles. The key word here is officially. While the violence dramatically decreased, much of the cross community tensions remained and were still present when I traveled there in 2013. However, because there is infrastructure for cross-community dialogue in Belfast this sentiment has been changed in some of these most hard lined members of the conflict.
Perhaps we in the US can take a lesson from the Northern Irish in thinking about our own civil rights movement. Although the campaigning days of Dr. Martin Luther King are gone, agreements have been signed, and laws have been made, we still desperately need cross-community dialogue.
This is, in part, why the work we do in the community engagement department is so important. Engaging the community in dialogue and discussing these horrible incidents of racism when they occur is one of the most important steps toward a better future. It helps this white Southern college student be part of answering that first question: Where do we go from here?
It’s something I’ll be thinking about while riding that bus, just as others did in the past, and I’m glad to continue working with a team to encounter difficult truths and come up with shared solutions.
Yesterday, I learned that Pete Seeger had died.
I didn’t hear about it first on the news. No, I heard about the passing of the legendary icon and folk singer through social media. A friend tagged me in some photos on Facebook.
The photos were from my college days, when several students at Brandeis had the privilege of learning from and singing with this iconic figure. Mr. Seeger.
I knew that it had been my sophomore or junior year of college, but I couldn’t remember the exact date, so I went digging. I found an old newsletter from Brandeis University’s International Center for Justice, Ethics, and Public Life. That’s where I confirmed the date and context of his concert and residency at my university:
“Building Community through Songs of Social Justice: Pete Seeger and Jane Sapp performed in concert to a sold-out crowd at Brandeis University’s Spingold Theatre on Monday, January 29th, 2001. Student groups performed during the concert: Women of Faith, Songleaders of the Brandeis Reform Chavurah, and Spur of the Moment.”
The memories did not quite come flooding back, but rather began trickling in slowly as I looked at the pictures. It was more than a decade ago. I remembered rehearsing with Mr. Seeger, and with Jane Sapp, an activist and gospel artist. Mr. Seeger was quiet, during the rehearsal; he was frail, even then, and I remember folks being worried that his voice would go out. But he listened to our questions, nodded along, whisper-sang some of the words as we practiced.
There was only one rehearsal when we were all together, as I recall – just one night to run through the basics and the numbers everyone would sing together, and soon thereafter we would be sharing a stage with Mr. Seeger. The man who wrote “If I Had a Hammer.”
If I Had a Hammer, y’all. That’s one of those forever-songs; one of those songs that seem like they just always must have existed.
You don’t get to meet the people who write those songs, let alone sing with them.
I remember being nervous backstage, less so for myself (I was singing with a group; had I a solo, I would have been a puddle on the floor) and more so for Mr. Seeger. He was so slight, so frail at the rehearsal. I was afraid the stage lights and the crowd might knock him over.
But here’s the part of my memory that remains clear: The pure magic of Mr. Seeger in front of an audience.
Faced with the crowd, his eyes lit up. His back straightened. He grinned. He gripped his banjo, and his fingers flew across those strings faster than any normal human octogenarian’s fingers should be ably to move.
“You know the words,” he said. And people did.
And people sang with him. Not just those of us who got to be onstage, but everyone in that room. Everyone. Everyone was singing with Mr. Seeger, and laughing at his stories of traveling with Woody Guthrie and other legends. He’d tell a story, and you’d half expect Paul Bunyan to feature in it. Then he’d start singing again, and so would we. And while he’s no longer here, people will still be singing his words, all over this land.
I looked again at the date of the concert: January 29, 2001.
Exactly thirteen years ago today, I was singing with Mr. Seeger. Today, I’m remembering him. May his memory be a blessing.
This post originally appeared on Beth Kander’s personal blog, and is reprinted here with permission. Like this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Today, as we reflect on the life and death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some of his greatest lessons are also front and center, and very evident in settings near and far: the power of place, and the even greater power of community.
We are here in Mississippi, the controversial heart-center of Freedom Summer, the end point for the freedom rides. Mississippi, whose work-cut-out-for-us reality was spelled out in Dr. King’s most famous of speeches, “I Have a Dream”:
From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring. But not only that: Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
A few weeks ago, from our desks here in Mississippi, several ISJL staff members joined a great video conference hosted by Jewish Women’s Archive, to go over their fantastic Freedom Summer curriculum resources. A few days ago, the staff here all gathered to discuss a film about inequality and discuss how we, as individuals and as an institution, can be a part of positive change. We partner with a diverse group of organizations, working to that end – Jewish and Christian and those of many other faiths, Southern and Northern and international.
Today, we also wanted to share an excerpt from our friends at Jewish& in which African American Jews share their thoughts on Dr. King’s legacy. Here’s a brief excerpt, and we strongly encourage you to read the entire piece:
“I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s. We had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches. My parents were not activists. They grew up poor, as sharecroppers in the South, but they instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” King helped my parents see a better future, not just for me and my brother but for themselves as well. As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all.”
Wherever we are and whatever our background, we can play a role in, as Sandra Lawson says, making the world “a better place for all.” All people, in all places. Let freedom ring from every mountain and molehill of Mississippi!