January 18, 2020

Finding Hope in Hopelessness

Rabbi Sharon Brous blesses the IKAR group with a kavannah, an intention, before entering the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Photos by Kim Silverstein

Editor’s note: On Nov. 17, members of IKAR traveled with Rabbi Sharon Brous to Montgomery, Ala. These two pages are reflections from that trip  — one by an adult, Adam Wergeles, and the other by teenager Ezra Golub.

“With Hope.”

These are the last words visitors see as they exit Bryan Stevenson’s groundbreaking Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala. Through the museum and Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Stevenson’s goal is to end the silence regarding the wretched and wrenching history of black Americans.

I was one of more than 100 people who took part in IKAR’s inaugural Civil Rights Trip to examine the legacy of slavery and racial subjugation, and explore what our Jewish tradition offers — indeed, requires — in response to this violent and shameful history.

As Jews, we are keenly aware of the dangers and success of genocidal motivations. For many of us, the Holocaust became the organizing principle around which we centered our Jewish identity. Our own generational trauma leaves us with a moral imperative to understand and fight against the degradation of others.

Our group’s visit began with a rousing sermon by Reverend Raphael G. Warnock at the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. We ended at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Martin Luther King Jr., at age 25, found the voice that would launch a civil rights movement. There, we had the privilege of meeting Steven Reed, the first African-American mayor of Montgomery. However, the focus of our visit was the trip to the museum and monument, and our meeting with Stevenson.

Rabbi Sharon Brous led us through texts that brought to bear the voices of Jewish sages on what it means to reckon with one’s transgressions. Her approach to racial justice is grounded in a Talumudic debate between Hillel and Shammai over one’s moral obligation if an edifice is constructed on the foundation of a stolen beam. Should we destroy the entire building as Shammai contends, or should the injured party receive monetary compensation for the beam, as Hillel argues? What ought to happen if the whole country is built on a stolen beam — the stolen labor of enslaved people?

In “Just Mercy,” Stevenson’s memoir about his legal work fighting for death-row inmates and others, he explains the burden people of color bear being constantly suspected, accused and presumed guilty – a burden that can’t “be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.” The museum starts that conversation.

IKAR members remember victims of lynching in the American South at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.

As you walk in, you immediately are confronted with holographic images of black adults and children in slave pens. The museum is built on the site of a 19th-century slave warehouse. The visceral, almost tactile experiences of the suffering and degradation perpetrated in our country cracks you open in a way no history book ever could.

From there, visitors walk into a pictorial chronology of racial injustice. It begins in 1619 when the first slave ship darkened our shores. Slavery in the United States lasted for 244 years — well after most western nations had abandoned the barbaric practice.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, there were 100 years of Jim Crow, including legalized segregation and state-tolerated and sanctioned racial terrorism in the form of lynching. And lest we believe all that ended with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the museum shows how the war on drugs and similar policies have led to the mass-incarceration society we now live in, in which 1 in 3 black children will go through the criminal justice system.

In “Just Mercy,” Stevenson’s memoir about his legal work fighting for death-row inmates and others, he explains the burden people of color bear being constantly suspected, accused and presumed guilty – a burden that can’t “be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.” 

The museum connects the dots, painting a picture of centuries of systemic and systematic subjugation of an entire race. It exposes that widespread social consent at all levels of government, business and civic institutions made the entire racist enterprise possible.

Our group later headed to the National Memorial of Peace and Justice, where we were confronted with a graphic sculpture depicting enslaved men, women and babies shackled together. In the memorial, large, brown rectangular structures resembling coffins hang from the ceiling, each representing a Southern county where lynching occurred, and bearing the names of those murdered, along with their dates of death. A number of the blocks listed multiple members of one family. On several, we saw many people were killed in one county on the same day, in some kind of racist-fueled paroxysm of murder.

Walking through the monuments, which initially are eye level, the ground sinks so the structures get higher and higher, until they are completely overhead. One visitor described the sensation as the weight of history bearing down on you. Another felt the sensation of drowning. To me, each rectangle felt like a reclaiming of the dead and tortured body left hanging on a tree in furtherance of white supremacist terror. Finally, we encountered a shimmering wall of water, a kind of tomb of the Unknown Soldier, giving memory to the many who were murdered but forever lost to history.

Stevenson explained to us how his work for condemned prisoners, kids serving life sentences and others without a voice led him to create the museum and the memorial — to offer a new, more honest narrative of race in America.

After a career of courtroom battles, he concluded that indifference to racism was a direct result of a widescale conspiracy of silence governing the black experience. So Stevenson undertook the herculean effort to chronicle this history and expose its ongoing and profoundly corrosive effects. Without this embrace of truth, he posits, there is no possibility of reconciliation; without reconciliation, progress is an illusion.

Despite this grim realization, Stevenson firmly believes in the redemptive possibility of reconciliation. There’s a wall of mason jars in the museum filled with soil from each known place a lynching occurred. Stevenson described the army of volunteers sent out to collect this soil.

One middle-aged black woman agreed to collect soil from a particularly isolated part of a Southern town. A white man in a pick-up truck approached her in a way that felt menacing to her. He asked what she was doing. She explained. He asked if he could help, then started digging with his hands. She asked him why he was crying, and he said he wondered whether his grandfather had participated in this lynching. This moment of shared human vulnerability and recognition is, Stevenson explained, the purpose of this gargantuan effort to correct the historical record and force us to look squarely in the face of unspeakable evil.

It is these moments, we realized, where hope lies. Hope is not the wild-eyed optimism that people will change overnight. It is not the denial of our history and shared responsibility. Hope exists in the call to do the work necessary to reckon with the truth and create the possibility of human redemption. As Stevenson said, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Our hope is our super power.”

Adam F. Wergeles is a Los Angeles technology lawyer and a co-founder of IKAR.