Fifty years ago this past June, I had just graduated from Kindergarten. I don’t know if my family went to Shabbat services on Friday evening, June 19, 1964. But if we had, my rabbi, Michael Robinson, would not have been there.
That’s because my rabbi was in jail. He was in jail in St. Augustine, Florida—the oldest city in the United States. He was in jail with fifteen other rabbis… and a minister named Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had sent an urgent appeal to the Central Conference of American Rabbis meeting in Atlantic City. He asked for whoever was so willing to leave the convention of Reform rabbis and fly to Florida to join his protest. The situation in St. Augustine was ugly but critical. King knew that the hour was crucial—Congress was on the verge of deciding whether to pass the long filibustered Civil Rights Act. A dramatic statement needed to be made. King turned to his good friend, Rabbi Israel Dresner, who still resides at age 85 in Wayne, NJ. He knew that Dresner and some of his colleagues not just talked the talk, but walked the walk of prophetic Judaism and civil rights activism. They were the bravest of clergy. Of the several hundred rabbis at the convention, 16 answered the call. And my rabbi was one of them.
The rabbis wrote a letter from St. John’s County Jail that Friday morning. They explained how they were arrested the day before while praying as an integrated group in front of one restaurant and sitting at a table with three Negro youngsters at another. They continue:
We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away. We could not say no to Martin Luther King…. We could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means… which has been the glory of the non-violent struggle for civil rights. We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood.
Here in St. Augustine we have seen the depths of anger, resentment and fury; we have seen faces that expressed a deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right and that it must inevitably triumph.
The letter, entitled, Why We Went, concludes,
These words were first written at 3:00 AM in the sweltering heat of a sleepless night, by the light of the one naked bulb hanging in the corridor outside our small cell. They were, ironically, scratched on the back of the pages of a mimeographed report of the bloody assaults of the Ku Klux Klan in St. Augustine. At day break we revisited the contents of the letter and prayed together for a new dawn of justice and mercy for all the children of God.
The St. Augustine arrests drew national attention in what would be an epic week for the civil rights movement. Later that very day the long awaited draft of the landmark Civil Rights Act passed the Senate. The Act would be signed into law by President Johnson on July 2. It is a little known fact, but one that we should take great pride in, that the Civil Rights Act, and its sister, the Voting Rights Act, were pieced together in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington.
The rabbis were let out of jail just before the Sabbath. On that Sunday, June 21, three young civil rights activists, part of the famed “Freedom Riders” went missing in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were 21 years old. Michael Schwerner was 24. Two white men and a black man. Two Jews and a Christian.
The president ordered 200 FBI agents to search for the three. Their bodies were found six weeks later. No one in Neshoba County was prosecuted for the crime of murder. Minor charges resulted in a handful of lesser figures serving less than 6 years. Andrew Goodman’s mother Carolyn, who became an activist in her own right, summed up the view of so many when, in an interview nearly 40 years after the tragedy, she said, “All these years, I’ve been hoping there would be justice for those boys. I’m still waiting.”
I speak to you on this Rosh Hashanah of my rabbi, and the Augustine 16, and the Freedom Riders, and the Civil Rights Act… because I did not want to let this 50th anniversary of the summer of ’64 go unnoticed. I was just a kid—some of you remember those days first hand—but as you know I’m a student of history. I try not to let significant anniversaries such as this pass unheralded.
But my reason is more than a history lesson. I am haunted by the words of Carolyn Goodman, “I’m still waiting.”
It would be wrong to ignore the great progress in civil rights we have made in this country in the last half century.
It would be wrong not to celebrate the reality of a black president; a black attorney general; two former secretaries of state who were African-American, and one a female.
And whether you agree with the Supreme Court ruling of late or not, consider that three females: two who are Jewish and one who is Hispanic sit on the Court, as does an African American.
Behind these highest of profile officials are governors, senators, congressman, mayors, state and local leaders… all part of our ever diverse democracy… in a way that would have been unthinkable in the lifetime of many of us here today.
And yet Carolyn Goodman’s words echo still, “I’m still waiting for justice.”
Before his death, King was increasingly drawing attention to the link between economic inequality and racial inequality. While the ever growing gap between the “haves’ and the “have-nots” in present day America calls for, well, an entire sermon… time allows me here just a moment to reflect on the specific issue that brought King and the rabbis to St. Augustine… segregation.
As Michelle Obama recently said, “Today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech.”
That may be an understatement. Today 4 in 10 black and Latino students attend schools that are classified as “intensely segregated,” meaning that 90% of the student body is minority. Right here in New York City more than half of the public schools fit that criterion. That’s right—more than half are 90% or more black and Hispanic.
Right now in America the North is more segregated than the South, and de-facto segregation is our cities is more egregious than de jure segregation ever was in rural America before Brown v Board of Education.
Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project calls this a “steady and massive re-segregation” of the nation and says, “We are, step by step, returning to the 'separate but equal' philosophy that so clearly failed the county.”
And let me point out that school segregation is greatest in this country not among blacks, but among Latinos. Poverty rates in this country have risen, even though less white Americans live in poverty and less black Americans live in poverty, but since 1990 three million more Hispanic Americans are poor. The 39 million Latinos in our country now make them the largest minority. One out of four lives under the poverty line. One out of every three children is in that situation. They cut our lawns, clean our pools, wash our dishes, pick our fruit. They are the strangers among us.
Yes, we are still waiting for justice. The pioneering accomplishments of the civil rights heroes are in truth unfinished.
We are still waiting for impartial justice that serves the rich and poor, educated and uneducated, alike.
We are still waiting for unbiased justice that serves majority and minority, white people and black people and brown people, alike.
We are still waiting for inclusive justice that serves male and female, straight and gay, able bodied and disabled, alike.
We are still waiting for equality of opportunity that gives our kids a fighting chance of getting out of the neighborhoods and schools that narrow their world.
We are still waiting for the 1% to share equally in the burden of taxation that the 99% shoulder year after year.
We are still waiting for the investment in America that understands that our outer security is dependent on our inner security; that a better balance must be found, for we neglect our children and our poor at our peril.
Yes, we are waiting, but it is up to us to grow impatient, and press for the change we want to see.
One need not walk away in cynicism or despair. There is indeed a glass half full. Let us fill it until in “runneth over.” There is indeed a will toward justice. Let us pursue it until it rolls down like a mighty stream.
Consider a final time those words of the bereaved mother. Carolyn Goodman spoke those words in 2004, four decades after the loss of her son. But that same year, remarkably, the case was reopened. An investigative journalist and a professor unearthed new evidence. A reluctant witness came forward. In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted on 3 counts of manslaughter. Carolyn herself, 90 years old, took to the stand. She lived to see justice served. She died a year later.
I am reminded of King’s famous statement, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Allow me to conclude with a few words about our special responsibility concerning all this as Jews:
That old book that we read, the Torah—it is not an exaggeration to say that it is obsessed with justice: justice for the forgotten; justice for the marginalized; justice for the outsider. Thirty six times the Torah commands love and justice for the stranger….
Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 14:33: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you should not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:8: [For the Lord your God] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger… you too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Jeremiah 7:5: “…execute justice between one another; do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow….”
Empathetic justice is arguably the central concern of the Torah and the Prophets. If you ask me, what makes Judaism so special… you just heard it. If you ask, what is our greatest message… I just quoted it. That’s what motivated my rabbi 50 years ago. And that’s what motivates us yet today.
Our ancient sages taught,
The task is great. Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor. It is not for you to finish the work. V’lo atah ben horin l’hibatel memenu. But neither are you free to desist from it. V’ba’al habayit dohek. And the Creator is pressing.
For we are waiting… waiting for justice.