From Selma to Pittsburgh: Mission to South builds black-Jewish bridges

From Selma to Pittsburgh: Mission to South builds black-Jewish bridges


Josh Sayles (File photo)
Josh Sayles (File photo)

Bryan Stevenson, a noted lawyer and social justice advocate, spoke in Pittsburgh recently about his work in the criminal justice system, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and his Equal Justice Initiative. With his striking success in the civil rights field, often against long odds, his call to action was remarkably simple: Get proximate. The term speaks to the idea of being close, of stepping beyond comfort levels to foster new relationships, to familiarize oneself with history and to get involved in the present day to forge solutions.

On a warm and sunny afternoon several weeks ago, a Pittsburgh delegation of five African American and Jewish leaders gazed across the Alabama River from the town of Selma. Before us stood the Edmund Pettus Bridge still named after a man who was a Confederate general, United States senator and leader in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The bridge drew national attention in March 1965 when it was the site of Bloody Sunday, when state troopers brutally attacked a group of 600 peaceful protestors attempting to march from Selma to Mongtomery.

We were there to walk across the bridge together, retracing the first few steps of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and hundreds of others who, on their third attempt in two weeks, were able to safely make the 54-mile trek to Alabama’s capital that ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Fifty years later, Rep. Lewis would once again march across that same bridge, this time with President Barack Obama.

This was only one of our proximate moments during our civil rights mission to the South in late April, during which we traveled through Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham to learn together about slavery, the civil rights movement and the direct correlation between the centuries-long oppression of people of color in the United States and the disproportionately large representation of minority communities within the criminal justice system.

The mission was sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a national organization, and coordinated by Etgar 36, a Jewish nonprofit that runs educational tours. Leaders from 13 cities around the United States joined the mission. Locally, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh provided a grant for five African American and Jewish leaders to participate with the intention of using our experience to strengthen solidarity and mutual understanding between our communities upon our return.

Perhaps the most powerful part of our three-day visit was Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, known informally as the Lynching Memorial. Opened last spring in Montgomery, it honors the lives of the thousands of black people who were lynched in the United States between the years of 1877-1950 by listing on monuments their names, the date of their death, and the county in which they were murdered. As we made our way through the exhibit, the monuments — each a heavy rusted metal rectangle slightly larger than the size of a person — were raised higher and higher off of the ground, emulating the process of a lynching from start to finish. It was a quietly haunting and somber experience as we moved through the space. The history and the pain were palpable, and the memorial had an eerily similar feel to internationally renowned Holocaust exhibitions. Their likeness served as a stark reminder of the common purpose of justice and progress.

Where do we go from here? We will be working with our friends and colleagues — Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Lindsay Powell and Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt — who joined us on our journey to the South to build ties between the African American and Jewish communities in Greater Pittsburgh. The outreach we conduct, the programming we create, and the relationships we foster will be cross-generational and ongoing. We will highlight work that is making a difference and best practices from which we can learn. We will intentionally pursue coalition building across demographics, cultures and localities recognizing that none of us is smarter than all of us and that we can be more successful through our collective impact. With the recent shootings of Antwon Rose II, at the Tree of Life synagogue building and in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the bombings in Sri Lanka, there is a sense of increased urgency as well as an emerging sense of opportunity for real relationships that extend beyond a show of solidarity.

Our local history here in Pittsburgh is filled with examples of leaders and communities working together. We stand both as allies in the work and also as engaged neighbors. We are encouraged to see so much activism and solidarity that is led and joined by younger generations. We will be all the more successful if we can bridge divides and work toward a common purpose. We believe this means pursuing equity in every sense of the word, with a special focus on marginalized communities who bear the brunt of so much of what we seek to change and improve. This means leading with empathy and making room for other voices. This means pairing on the ground community organizing with legislation at the local, state and federal level. This means seeking opportunities to support each other, to hold space for each other to learn from one another.

Following in the footsteps of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rep. John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was a powerful window into history. But it was also a stark reminder that the reverend, the rabbi and the congressman forged their relationship more than 50 years ago. As we strive to make Pittsburgh a more equitable place for all, we want our communities to be marching side-by-side in present day. The burden will be lighter if we commit to this work and we carry it together. pjc

Josiah Gilliam is the My Brother’s Keeper Coordinator for the City of Pittsburgh. Josh Sayles is the director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. This piece is being published concurrently in the New Pittsburgh Courier.

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