Written by: Hanna Carr, NFTY-PAR RCVP
It was 8 AM when we began to march. We laced up our sneakers, donned our hats and sunglasses, and lathered on sunscreen as we took to the pavement, eager to trek the seventeen miles that lay ahead. It was a muggy August day in rural South Carolina, but the heat did not diminish our zeal in taking a stand for civil rights on America’s Journey for Justice, a 40-day, 860-mile trek from Selma to Washington, DC, sponsored by the NAACP.
Walking alongside the President of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, as well as NAACP staff, volunteers, and a remarkable showing of Rabbis, I quickly learned that my place was not to talk, but to listen. The woman marching next to me shared a story about experiencing racial prejudice while attempting to rent a Philadelphia apartment, and it was disconcerting to hear about racism so close to home. Multiple volunteers told me that when they marched with the NAACP in Mississippi, violent white rioters and members of the KKK screamed, threw fried chicken, and shot at the bus carrying the marchers. I had only ever heard of such blatant racism in books and movies, and it was distressing to hear so many first-hand accounts.
Luckily, the only true opposition I witnessed was about half a dozen Confederate flags (flying specially for us) and a few boos and snickers as we passed a local gas station. Most of the locals’ reactions were positive, and passing motorists often greeted us with waves or celebratory honks. The most generous outpouring of support, however, came from a local discount-store owner, who stood by at the gas station and was appalled by the locals’ enmity towards the march and especially the ubiquity of Confederate flags. Moved by the march’s mission, she quickly ran back to her family-owned store and whipped up lunch for us, nourishing not only our bodies, but our spirits as well.
As one of only a few white non-Rabbis on the march, and especially as a youth, the question I received the most was “Why are you here?” Sure, it was easy for me to respond, “Oh, my dad is a Rabbi, so I just tagged along for the ride.” But that was not the truth. I did not tolerate two back-to-back ten-hour car rides just to keep my dad company or for a scenic view of the deep south. I was there because I needed to reaffirm Judaism’s commitment, NFTY’s commitment, and my own commitment to pursuing justice and equality for all people. In Pirkei Avot, we are taught that “the world endures on three things – justice, truth and peace.” As Jews, we are not strangers to prejudice, and we are commanded to seek justice when others are experiencing oppression. So, I urge anyone to reading this – that means you – to join the NAACP, the URJ, and NFTY on September 16th in Washington, D.C., for the final rally of the march. If you can’t make it, the best thing you can do is educate yourself and introduce the topic of race-related inequality, especially in education, jobs, and the criminal justice system, in your regions, schools and hometowns. Talk to your congregations, TYGs, and NFTY regions, reach out to your local legislators, or just bring these issues up in daily conversations. After all, the march means nothing if we don’t bring it home.