A version of this article appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times.
By Lily Brent, Director, Repair the World Atlanta
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama has a steel pillar for each county in the United States where a lynching took place. When I visited with my fellow Repair the World City Directors last month, I thought it would be easy to find the monument for Fulton County because I knew it would be crowded with the names of the 35 documented victims of racial terror lynchings in the community where I make my home. I scanned the oxidized columns one after another after another. There are more than 800. Many of them crowded with names like Lillie (mine) and Daniel (my father’s) and Adam (my brother’s) and Squire, Julia, Evan, Robert, George, Thomas, Lit, Cairo, and Lincoln. The Fulton County pillar was lost to me in a killing forest.
With the help of staff, I found our Fulton County history suspended from the ceiling, hanging heavy and ominous over my head.
The Memorial is at once a place of deep dignity and honor for Black Americans who were denied due process, terrorized, tortured, murdered, and who have gone largely unacknowledged for a hundred years or more. Or far less. It is also a place of shame. That shame is too complex to unpack fully here, but I will share a piece of mine with you in good faith.
As a Jew who worked with genocide survivors in Rwanda, I consider myself someone well-steeped in “man’s inhumanity to man.” Here in the United States, I have worked in prisons and public schools and I know we are far from freedom and justice for all.
I lived and worked in Rwanda during the final year of gacaca, the country’s truth and reconciliation process after a genocide in which over 800,000 human beings were murdered in 90 days. Looking out at the country’s stunning vistas of green hills as far as the eye can see, I marveled at how such a beautiful landscape could be so blood-soaked: that gentle ribbon of river was choked with bodies, red like a plague in April 1994. I questioned how neighbors could continue to live alongside each other when members of one family had macheted members of the other. That kind of tolerance seemed inconceivable.
What I failed to realize–and now I cannot believe the colossal nature of my ignorance and naivete, my blinding white privilege–is that we in the United States are living our own unresolved legacy of violence. Just as I walked through the Eastern Province of Rwanda and had someone point out the house of the man who killed his father, I walked through Selma with activist Joanne Bland, who pointed out the business establishment of the man thought to have murdered Reverend James Reeb. Here neighbors are also living alongside descendants of those who lynched their family members. Yet we’ve never sat together in the fields, community by community, and told our stories.
Many of us have made or will make pilgrimages to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)’s Legacy Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice. Many of us will be moved by re-encountering our American history from a lens of racial terror, and facing the founding “myth of racial difference” that has justified everything from slavery, to convict leasing, to casting black children as “super-predators.” In Rwanda, moving forward after atrocities called for a reckoning with the crimes committed, not through retribution, but through truth-telling. This is the movement EJI is creating. As Jews, what is our place in this movement?
At Repair the World, our mission is to mobilize Jews and their communities to take action to pursue a just world. As volunteers, we’re often meeting and serving people with whom we don’t share lived experiences. For white, affluent volunteers, this might mean entering an unfamiliar neighborhood, one that doesn’t have a grocery store with fresh produce, or a subway station, and where 40% of residents don’t own cars. We might listen to people striving to break out of poverty and running up against barriers like a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour ($1,160 per month) in a city where the average two-bedroom apartment costs $1,000 per month. We might hear a new perspective in conversation with Black Atlantans. Without understanding our shared history, we are in danger of accepting the poverty and inequity we encounter while volunteering as incidental and accidental and not part of a larger system of inequality rooted in persistent and pernicious white supremacy.
Volunteering, when done right, allows us to stand shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors. It opens an opportunity to hear the urgent needs in our community, and to strive to meet them. There is something deeply satisfying about knowing that someone will not go hungry tonight because of us. Yet Jewish scholarship teaches us to question. And as we do the important work of meeting urgent needs, I believe we are also obligated to ask ourselves “why?” Why is this work of feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, tutoring children in inadequate schools still necessary in the wealthiest country in the world? Every individual has a story filled with choices, but as Bryan Stevenson of EJI, famously writes, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” When we see patterns of disenfranchisement and disinvestment persist along racial lines, we have to ask ourselves why.
While Atlanta is a city with a proud legacy of Black leadership and innovation across fields, the patterns of inequity are also clear. Atlanta is tied for the city with the greatest income inequality in the nation and also “has the widest racial achievement gap of any urban school district except Washington, D.C”. Georgia has the most people under correctional control (prison, jail, probation and parole) of any state in the U.S. and a vastly disproportionate number of people incarcerated in our state are African American. EJI is calling us to the realization that racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and incarceration stem from our unresolved history of slavery, racial terror, and systematic discrimination.
Our heroes of the Civil Rights movement made monumental progress toward the realization of all America promises. And yet the struggle is not over. In my job as Director of Repair the World Atlanta, people often share their desire to make our community more just, but lament, “What can I do?” Racism and inequity are entrenched problems on scale where it can feel hard to make an impact. At Repair, we take small and consistent steps to care for each other. We also urge you to ask the big questions.