What Selma, Occupy and Moses Have to Teach about #BlackLivesMatter (MLK Shabbat Message)

As a white person, I acknowledge that my lived experience is different from the experience of people of color. I do not consider myself a racist, yet I know that because my understanding is limited and my personal concerns often lie elsewhere, I may well display racist tendencies. For this, I ask forgiveness.

I also acknowledge that I have the capacity to be an ally or a bystander. As a Jew, I know that I carry both a historic alliance with oppressed people, people on the margins. And I also know that as a Jew in America today, my life is far more privileged than that of my immigrant grandparents and my ancestors in other historic communities.  So I approach this topic both as an onlooker and ally and as a person of conscience born of my people’s story.

While some might approach the issue of racism in America by drawing on the story of the Jew as immigrant to America, striving to fit in, we must root our story not in history, but in Torah. Specifically, in Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.

In his book, America’s Prophet, Bruce Feiler discusses the role that Moses has played throughout American history. Nowhere is the symbol of Moses more forceful, more memorable, more potent than with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Feiler interviews Andrew Young, the author poses the question, was MLK a Moses? After all, says Feiler, civil rights leaders like John Lewis and Ralph Abernathy called him a Moses. Jet magazine put him on the cover with the caption “Alabama’s Modern Moses.”

Here is Andrew Young’s answer: 

“In many ways he was.  He was Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was humanity. But humanity in the hands of god. And that’s what made the difference—that he put himself in God’s hands. And that’s what Moses did. One of the things that strengthened Martin’s leadership is that he realized he didn’t have to be perfect. God has always used frail human beings. And God was using him… Not all prophets are judged by their moral perfection. They’re judged by the poignancy of their proclamations. And Martin Luther King left a glorious proclamation.”

In the movie “Selma,” King is portrayed as a frail human being. His greatest speeches don’t make it into the movie. He’s not alone on the mountaintop; he is part of a powerful group of leaders, SCLC, all of whom have a say, King was mortal, a person with emotional turbulence as much as any other person.

Like Moses, King was often impatient. Lacking patience, Moses takes matters into his own hands by murdering a taskmaster, realizing too late that this rash act will not have any impact on the system of slavery. King pushed for changes that others were not ready to demand or to accept. It’s telling that his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was published as a pamphlet with the title “Why We Can’t Wait.” And yet, both eventually learned patience when it served their ultimate goals.

For me, the most striking moments of the movie, “Selma” were the ones that took place behind closed doors. With President Johnson in the White House, with the leadership of the Southern Christian leadership Conference, and when negotiating with Johnson’s aids, we witness King’s strategic genius.

This comes to a head, in the movie, when King embarks on a second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Following a first and unsuccessful attempt to march on what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” King called for clergy across the country to join him a second time. On what was later known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” King led the larger group of marchers to the middle of the bridge. There he faced a blockade of Alabama state troopers, authorized by Governor George Wallace. Suddenly, the captain called his troops to stand down and allow the marchers to pass. At that moment, ran than advance, King knelt and prayed. Then, very dramatically, he rose up and turned back, ending the march that day.

At this moment, the film presents the two divergent responses to this act. On the one hand, some claim it’s an act of cowardice. The clergy were there, the numbers were there, the National Guard was standing down. Others claimed King was taking matters into his own hands, without consulting others.

On the other hand, we hear the voice of the faithful, who saw King’s kneeling in prayer as a moment of authentic soul-searching. In that moment, King was asking for divine guidance and determined that it would be best to turn around. In a later scene, we hear King declare that he would rather have people angry at him for turning back than suffer the brutality and violence that he felt would surely take many lives.

And we, the moviegoers, are also hearing the unspoken strategic compact that King had made with President Johnson: if Wallace’s army stands down, and we stand down, then LBJ will finally move ahead on the Voting Rights Act. That move paid off.  Here, King exhibited restraint in service to a larger goal.

Twelve days later, on March 21, the March did set out from Selma to Montgomery, successfully crossing that bridge and within five days, reaching the Alabama Capitol.

The film “Selma” highlights the ingredients of success in this moment of the civil rights movement. The Promised Land that King spoke of with such vision, had political objectives. Political objectives demand strategic thinking, including putting pressure on political leaders. Protests and marches were not an end in themselves; they contributed to the political objectives.

There are those who argue that political objectives are insufficient. Fifty years after its passage, racism still pervades the American justice system. They point to the way the Voting Rights Act has been eviscerated by the most recent Supreme Court decision. In order to set it right, it requires an act of Congress, and we know how unlikely that is. What is really needed today, many would claim, is a massive cultural shift, far bigger than any one political gain.

The Occupy Movement arose in 2011 to force that kind of cultural change. Occupy was a new kind of social movement, one that eschewed charismatic leadership. Occupy favored the 21st-century idea of crowd-sourcing—the most inclusive, egalitarian means to making social change, where every person has an equal voice. No outside organizations (no matter what their history or expertise) could be trusted to assist.

The Occupy Movement was full of passion that was intoxicating. While it lasted, it drew all kinds of Americans, including many of us, to visit the encampments and keep track of their unconventional methods. We were filled with hope for its success.

But the movement was so short-lived, with evictions from most encampments by November that the passionate energy that Occupy aroused across the country died out before changing a single law.

Many saw from the beginning that this sort of unfocused protest that raised awareness without political objectives was unlikely to lead to real change. Some Occupy groups did develop lists of demands. They ranged from a focus on particular legislation (“reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act”) to broad and cumbersome verbiage (“Congress should pass specific and effective laws limiting the influence of lobbyists and eliminating the practice of lobbyists writing legislation that ends up on the floor of Congress.”)

Nevertheless, in September 2012, a year after the Occupy Wall Street movement began, the Annenberg Media Center described 5 things that Occupy did well:

  • Captured attention and sparked interest—engaged new people in the  political conversation
  • Created a new language—the 99% has become a key phrase for describing income inequality
  • Changed the political conversation or context—exemplified by popular support for Elizabeth Warren that continues to garner attention
  • Raised free speech questions
  • United Citizens—brought diversed groups of protesters together in one tent
  • In other words, Occupy succeeded in changing some basic cultural norms, empowering millions of Americans to speak out, bringing us together under the notion of the 99%, and insisting that Americans would not quietly accept the wealth gap and the crimes of Wall Street without protest.

In today’s conversation about race and racism, as we consider the future of BlackLivesMatter, not yet a movement, but more than a protest, we might take lessons from Selma, Occupy and Moses. As we work to make change in the distribution of justice in our country, from racial profiling to police brutality to the incarceration of disproportionate numbers of people of color, to the complicity of the white community in suspecting young men of color to be criminals, we can learn from these examples. Let’s start with Moses.

Like the Occupy Movement, Moses changed a culture. Not only did he take the Israelites out of Egypt, he accomplished this by helping the Children of Israel to hear the divine voice calling them to the Promised Land and to recognize their own power. Moses also fought a strategic battle will Pharaoh. Over time, while suffering losses among his own people, and losing heart at times, he fearlessly stood before Pharaoh and made demands as if speaking to an equal, until Pharaoh finally relented. Moses even succeeded in bringing Egyptians along with him, such as the women who gave gifts of jewels to their Israelite counterparts before they left, the erev rav, the mixed multitude, who crossed the Red Sea alongside them.

We have learned from all of these examples that change relies on strategic objectives and raising awareness on a massive scale. The most important lesson for us today, is that we should not tear each other down because of our different approaches. Some of us feel called to protest, to attend rallies, to join with others in order to create power. Others will find success in laser-sharp focus on specific achievements:  legislative and civic achievements as well as building coalitions and strengthening relationships. If we share the same ultimate goal, if we all have a vision of a Promised Land, then let’s work together, recognizing that both raising awareness and attending to specific political outcomes are separate and mutually beneficial goals.

With the divine voice guiding us, reminding us to listen and respect and appreciate one another, we can all be part of the solution.

Posted on January 19, 2015 .