Fifty-six years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for rabbis to join him for a demonstration in St. Augustine, Florida to protest the town’s inhumane racial segregation. Sixteen rabbis and one layman answered the call.
On the morning of June 18, 1964, in the midst of our organized prayer demonstration in the St. Augustine parking lot of the Monson Motor Lodge surrounded by police, I witnessed an act of incomparable courage. Five young people in bathing suits pulled into the parking lot, jumped from their car, dashed toward the motel pool and jumped into the water determined to integrate the motel pool. Beside himself, the manager grabbed two-gallon jugs of acid and raced around pouring the it into the water. The kids didn’t move. Though neither the young people nor the manager knew that the acid dilutes in water, they did not move.
All the rabbis were arrested and locked up together in a small cell. That night at 3 a.m., illuminated by a single bulb, we composed our thoughts sitting on the bare concrete floor. We had only the stub of a pencil and the blank side of a KKK poster.
We wrote: “We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. If St. Augustine is to be not only an ancient city, but also a great-hearted city, it will not happen until the raw hate, the ignorant prejudices, the unrecognized fears which now grip so many of its citizens, are exorcised from its soul.”
Five decades later across the country the beaches, the restaurants, transportation, and accommodations are integrated, but our souls are not.
My being is ripped. My heart is on fire. I grieve because progress is minuscule. Was it all in vain?
Another quote from our jail time manifesto, “We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others, but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.”
Tisk, Tisk and OMG, OMG are not enough. Both Leviticus and the Gospels scream to us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What has happened to us that we’re not hearing that exhortation.
Elie Weisel wrote, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” You’re right Elie. Silence is not an option.
Demonstrations are meaningful. But after awhile the noise and news die down, Washington breathes a sigh of relief and moves on to something else. If change is to happen, we need a constant and determined will. Options abound. Write our elected officials and stay, stay, stay on their case. Become active in civil rights groups such as our local Love Lives Here or the ADL, Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU , The Montana Innocence Project, The Montana Racial Equity Project, to name a few. Open up your checkbook. If we do nothing we are complicit.
Michael Walzer, a classmate from Brandeis, recently wrote, “Black Lives Matter will never win by itself; minorities need friends – even if the friendship is hard to ask for. Indeed, given American history, it should not be necessary to ask; the friends should come forward on their own. Yes, BLM should be recruiting organizational allies. More important, the rest of us should be volunteering.”
Sam Cooke told us:
I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees, oh
There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will
Rabbi Allen Secher lives in Whitefish.
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