Nitzavim-Lift Every Voice!

Nitzavim-Lift Every Voice!

 I sat in a bit of a daze in a small, packed church in Cheraw, South Carolina on the evening of August 27, 2015.  Full from a dinner prepared lovingly by volunteers in a local community center, comfortable in the air-conditioning, I struggled to keep my eyes open for this NAACP Mass Meeting.  After a few brief welcomes, the small choir began:

Lift every voice and sing

Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…
march.jpg
I had awoken that morning in army barracks in Columbia, South Carolina where I arrived late the night before to join America’s Journey for Justice with the NAACP.  The NAACP has organized this 860-mile, 40-day trek from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC under the banner: “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools Matter.”

When Rabbi Seth Limmer heard about plans for this journey, he thought that it would great if there was one rabbi to walk each day of the journey.  He put out a call to see if he could find 40 willing rabbis.  He received an overwhelming response. The march began on August 1. To date, over 180 rabbis have walked in this journey coordinated largely by the heroic efforts of Allison Porton and Claire Shimberg of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Each day, most participants walk about 16 miles beginning around 7am.  However, in order to arrive in Washington DC by September 16, each day’s journey must average about 22 miles.  Therefore, a small group of walkers leave around 4:30am in order to clock the extra miles needed to complete the trek.  After a quick breakfast in the mess hall, we boarded the bus at 7:30am to meet the early morning walkers.

The march that day commenced with an Elul shofar blast. Though it was before 9 in the morning, the Carolina sun already seemed cruel.  We marched two-by-two, kept in order by a former marine drill sergeant and kept safe by several plain clothes policemen.  In front, NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks led the way with a man who goes by the name Middle Passage holding the American flag.  Behind them, people alternated walking with the Torah.  As we crossed from county to county, police cars dotted the landscape, making sure that the route’s protection was secure. Twenty pairs of marchers walked that day– from teenagers to elders– hydrating every mile and taking quick bathroom breaks every three.

After our third three-mile marker, we gathered together to hear some unsettling information: we were approaching an area notorious for Klu Klux Klan activity.  If provoked, we were not to react.  Some people on our march knew first-hand how quickly things could escalate even without provocation.  On a previous march from Ferguson to Jefferson City, Missouri white supremacists shot out a bus window, threw fried chicken and watermelon in the road and lynched a deer to intimidate marchers.  We began this leg of the journey in silence.  I held the Torah and watched cautiously as I noticed a Rottweiler off its leash in a nearby open yard.  A small crowd of about ten people gathered across the street at a gas station.  One shouted boo as others laughed derisively.

Soon, I found myself walking alongside Ivan who proudly informed me that his name meant “gracious gift of God”—Yonatan in Hebrew. This Mississippi-born, 70 year-old man walked with a cane, yet was determined to walk every inch of the 860 mile-journey.  We walked the rest of the day’s journey together, talking about family, God, nature, and Erica Badu.  We caught a break in the afternoon as clouds covered the hot Carolina sun.   Ivan never fully answered the question that I still can’t figure out:  How do you decide to drop all the comforts of home in order to journey the entire 40-day trek at any age, let alone 70? Even without an answer, I found myself inspired to walk every leg of the journey that day to be in his presence.

That night at the church, others dressed in their Sunday best while we sat in the pews still wearing our bright yellow t-shirts stiff with dried sweat.  Important figures surrounded us: elected officials as well as the chief of police and the county sheriff. Members of the NAACP, the mayor of Cheraw, and other public figures spoke from the pulpit.

Person after person mentioned Levi G. Byrd, an early civil rights activist.  Curious, I googled him and quickly found that he had been a plumber who rose through the ranks of the NAACP in the 1930s.  Most profound to me was a letter dating from 1931 in which Byrd wrote to the Alabama governor trying to save the lives of 8 boys who were set to be electrocuted.  Full of typos and misspellings, he concluded his letter:

I am only a law-abiding citizen of their race wishing to see justice done them as Alabama is now on trial.*

What bravery and insight to write this letter.  Byrd wrote this letter on behalf of the “Scottsboro Boys,” the young men (ages 13-21) who received a death sentence for the alleged rape of two white women.  The conviction by an all-white jury led to protests across the globe.  Because of courageous women and men like Levi G. Byrd, all of these men were released by 1950.   I felt honored to sit in the pews of a church where Levi G. Byrd once sat.

When Cornell Brooks arrived on the pulpit around a half past eight, he did not look like he had just marched 16 miles– and he certainly didn’t sound like it.  He framed his talk with the phrase “selfies for justice,” referencing the pictures and ideas that should influence the way we think about the past and present moments of the civil rights movement.  He challenged us to see beyond pictures and, in reference to the mass incarceration of people of color, to see beyond prison records.   Repeating the numbers listed under the mug shots of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, he declared:

“You are not defined by your criminal ID record or number, but by your God-given dignity.”  He continued, “People counter the notion of ‘black lives matter’ by saying that ‘all lives matter.’ If that be the case, then why is it that a black man is 22 times more likely to lose his life at the hands of a police officer than his white counterpart?”

With a pointed tone, he concluded:
“We believe that if black lives matter, we have to act like they matter.”

Mr. Brooks’ energy surged as the speech wore on, so that by the end, he nearly shouted the verses that open Lift Every Voice and concluded his speech:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

 

Fist in the air, he repeated over and over in a hoarse, yet determined yelp:

“Let us march on!  Let us march on!  Let us march on!  Let us march on!”

These words continue to echo in my ears as I ready myself to read the words of Parashat Nitzavim that begin:

Atem netzavim…

​You stand this day all of you before Adonai your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel; Your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; That you should enter into covenant with Adonai your God, and into this oath, which Adonai your God makes with you today.

The word for “stand” here is netzavim which is often associated with going into battle.  Here, it means “to stand at attention.” Get ready to march.

As I return to Chicago, I stand at attention, ready to continue this march for racial justice with all of you. We must stand together with others across race and faith to do God’s work; our school grade captains, our elders, our elected officials, with all the people in the Chicago community; our teenagers and young ones, our family members, and even strangers who live in Chicago, from the Bronzeville school teacher to the caregiver in Englewood; that we should affirm our covenant with Adonai our God, this brit tzedek—this sacred covenant of justice—which God challenges us to accept today.

This is how we perform the command in our parasha to choose life: by lifting every voice and giving it the dignity it deserves.  We must do this not only in personal interactions, but in the laws we pass and the way we enforce them: ending wage discrimination and racial profiling, restoring and strengthening schools in every neighborhood and everyone’s right to vote.

As we get ready to enter this new year of 5776, let us march on.  Let us choose life!


* Actual text: “i am only a law abiden sidzecm of thir race. wishing to see justerst done them. as Ala. Is now own tril.”