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MLK Shabbat

01/16/2020 04:19:25 PM

Jan16

Rabbi Micah

My parents grew up in the south in Virginia in the 50’s and 60’s. I truly feel blessed that I never had to live in the south through that time. Simultaneously I am filled with a sense of dread, fear, horror and sadness that they had to witness humanity at its worse up close with no escape. I thought I would share an excerpt from my father’s book “Jewish meaning in a World of Choice”, where he describes what it was like to grow up in the Jim Crow south:

The forces that have animated my work cannot be understood without recourse to my family and my past as a Jewish boy growing up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s and the multilayered world I experienced. Everything in my world talked about difference and exclusion. My grandparents all emigrated from eastern Europe to the United States in the early 1900s. My maternal grandparents settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while my paternal grandparents improbably came to Newport News, Virginia…

Newport News and its sister city of Hampton were then small southern towns that were overwhelmingly Protestant. The politics of race was a central issue in the Virginia of my boyhood, and there was strict segregation in the schools and in all public facilities, along with ubiquitous signs separating "white" from "colored" people in all these venues. While the landmark 1954 Brown v. Topeka decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Plessey v. Ferguson (1896) and held that the doctrine of “separate but equal" was unconstitutional. Virginia senator Harry Flood Byrd of Winchester-the dominant political voice in Virginia during those years-nevertheless formulated a policy of “massive resistance" to integration that guided the political direction of the commonwealth during those years.

Of course, there was resistance to Byrd as well. I still have strong remembrances of students from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) engaging in nonviolent protests and marches to desegregate public restaurants, even as a former governor of Virginia, in a particularly obscene comment, stated that "integration was akin to mixing vanilla ice cream with coal dust. It ruined the ice cream and rendered the coal dust useless". I still cringe as I recall his words, and I remember shamefully that at one point during this period Prince Edward County in Virginia closed all its public schools rather than allow integration. It may have been the one place in the English speaking world that had, for a short time, the disgraceful distinction of having no public school system.

I have a vivid memory of how my parents felt about all this and the attitudes they conveyed to me as a young boy over supper at the dining room table, where events of the day were discussed. They were enthusiastic supporters of Governor Lindsay Almond of Roanoke, who, after his election in 1958, abandoned the policy of "massive resistance" that his political mentor Senator Byrd, had promulgated. Instead,  Almond stated that Virginia would obey the law of the land as dictated by the supreme court. Regarded as a "traitor" by his own class. Almond was a hero in my home, and he remains for me a shining model of political and moral courage…

During this period of my boyhood, my father took me to a segregationist rally being held in the southern countryside of Virginia. He was uncharacteristically silent as we drove to the rally. He said only that he wanted me to see firsthand and up close how "evil" appeared. My father made no other comment, either at the rally or as we drove home. However, he surely succeeded in his.

Please join us tomorrow night at 7pm for our MLK Shabbat. 

Tue, February 18 2020 23 Shevat 5780