A Montgomery Experience

This article was originally published in The Times of Israel on August 11, 2019. 

By Zack Block

It’s been three months since I returned home to Pittsburgh after a trip to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama with my Repair the World colleagues. It has taken me just as long to put my experience and observations into words.

I’ll start with a rather vulnerable admission – a tremendous amount of power and privilege comes with my outward identity – I am a cisgender, white, male. In most settings, people do not see what I am privileged to hide – that I have spent my life struggling with anxiety, that I am constantly on the hunt for quiet, and that I am Jewish. In the most soul ravaging way, my travels to Montgomery and Selma reminded me that I cannot, that we cannot – for a moment – hide behind our privilege and avoid our collective past.

In Montgomery and Selma, I saw the historical underpinnings of domestic hatred. I learned about deep-seated and systemic racism. At the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, I studied every word of a timeline that began more than 400 years ago. The timeline explained, in painful detail, our country’s progression from participating in the international slave trade to adopting a domestic slave trade. From growing a domestic slave trade to enacting black codes. Before my trip, I knew that black codes were enacted after emancipation, but in Montgomery, I learned that those codes were enacted only after people of color began to thrive. Thus, our country responded to a perceived threat to white power by continuing to separate and marginalize the very group of people it had just emancipated.

At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, as I passed through and under aisles of rectangular human-sized steel boxes, meant to represent coffins, I was overwhelmed by a familiar pit in my stomach. I realized that it was the very same pit that plagued me when I walked through Dachau, the first concentration camp created by the Nazis in 1933. I remember walking through Dachau in the rain, a downpour that felt like my relatives’ tears. I remember the smell of leather permeating through rooms filled with murder victims’ shoes at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C.. I was shocked by the eerie similarity of sensation that I felt at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Much like my experience in Germany, so too in Montgomery, I could not look away from the brutality of man; only this time, I faced the cruelty of America’s past.

For more than 400 years, a privileged white majority in our country, the majority in which I am often privileged to occupy, has treated people of color as less than. While “slavery,” as we once knew it, has been abolished, the path to success for people of color continues to be paved with adversity. While we enacted color blind laws, those laws are, to this day, applied in subjective ways that create space for explicit and implicit bias. We end one system of slavery and we immediately build up the next. We call it the War on Crime, the War on Drugs. They’re named in a way that encourages everyone to get behind them, but then they’re applied in biased,racist, and subjective ways.

For three months, I have asked the same question of myself – a question I believe I will continue to ask every day that I am on this Earth – what can I do – what can we do? For this, I return to the foundation of my Jewish faith – as a Jew, I am commanded to pursue justice. This commandment is not thrust upon me because I am Jewish and it is not commanded because it will lead to fame or wealth. As a wise rabbi recently explained to me, we must all pursue justice because of b’tzelem Elohim. Because we – you and I – are created in God’s image. We seek justice, we work towards equity, we practice humility, we study our past so we can be better in the future. We do all of this because humankind was created to be like the Divine.

For this reason, I will do more and I invite you to join me. Join me in building relationships with our neighbors. Join me in understanding that we have so much in common. Join me in knowing that building these relationships and genuinely getting to know others who live in our communities is the first step towards building a more equitable society. Join me to serve with our communities and learn from our communities. Join us as we build a movement towards equity in our cities and in our country.