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America's Journey for Justice

In the summer of 2015, several members of Temple Emanuel joined America's Journey for Justice, the NAACP's march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C. The march began at the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in August of that year, where in 1965 state troopers had attacked with clubs and tear gas.protesters led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  A lot had changed since then. And a lot had not.

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Marching with the NAACP in North Carolina

The marchers had gathered early in the morning at an assisted living center in a poor neighborhood in Henderson, North Carolina. After a quick breakfast, they boarded two buses that would take them deep into the countryside on two lane roads bordered by wilting tobacco and soybeans. After about twenty minutes or so, they arrived at a closed gas station, where the "sprint team," young men who had logged a few miles for the march earlier in the morning, would meet them.

The NAACP organizers lined up the crowd of fifty or so marchers, two by two, and outlined the plan for the day. One of Temple Emanuel's congregants was assigned the role of marshal and he was instructed not only to help keep folks marching safely inside the right lane, but also to look out for hazards like cracks in the asphalt, snakes, and even shouting bigots, which sounded like the escalating plagues in the Exodus story. There were no issues, however, along the entire route. A few folks waved at the marchers from porches and honked their horns as they passed them, and except for the garbage on the side of the road, it was beautiful country.

Soon everyone started marching. It was easy going along the flat stretches of road, with grassy banks and alternating vignettes of tidy houses and orderly fields. A phalanx of state troopers with blue lights flashing kept cars at bay ahead and behind the march, and, unlike 1965, from time to time one of them would crank up the radio and everyone walking, old and young, would shuffle to Marvin Gaye and other Motown greats.

As folks loosened up, they started talking and soon learned the stories of other participants on the march. The ninety-four year old lady who had walked the first few hundred feet and then had returned to the bus was active in the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. Middle Passage, with his iconic cowboy hat, had carried the Stars and Stripes since the beginning. (Several days later, he died of heart failure just before reaching Washington, D.C.) A well-dressed teacher had driven from Arkansas just to be there, that day.

Among the folks from Temple Emanuel, there also were inspiring stories. One woman had slept on a cushion in a classroom in the synagogue so that she could catch a ride to Henderson at four in the morning. Another was recovering from knee surgery and walked a mile or two with a walker, in great pain, just to be able to say that she had crossed into Virginia with the march. The look of joy in her face when we crossed the state line was priceless. A young man of thirteen, who had just finished his bar mitzvah, came with his mom. He helped and encouraged her when she hurt her knee after many miles of walking.

The NAACP organizers did a great job of keeping the march moving, gently cajoling stragglers back into line, and chanting H-I-L-L as they began to feel the strain of the first climbs and dips as they approached Virginia. It was difficult not to notice that many of the marchers were white, and that many of them were Jewish. At one point, there seemed to be some tension when a Christian asked to carry the Torah that a synagogue in Chicago had donated to accompany the length of the march, as it has been assumed that only Jews could touch it. But it was OK with Rabbi Kathy Cohen, as it belonged to a Reform synagogue, and so the Torah was lovingly carried like a baby by several folks in turn, Black and White, Christian and Jew. Everyone was there just to march in the sun.

There seemed to be little engagement from folks along the route, but perhaps they were startled by the police, or they simply were uneasy about the police presence itself. It brought home that something was broken, and that it was imperative to "heal the world" as the Jewish tradition demands from all of us.

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As soon as the marchers crossed into Virginia, they stopped to allow the  North Carolina state troopers to hand over their responsibilities to the counterparts in the Old Dominion. The outgoing officer in charge, who was white, was nearly in tears when he offered a few words of encouragement at that juncture.  It was moving. Then the marchers were issued yellow t-shirts and placards, and they posed for photographs next to a highway sign.

The march was not over, however, as the plan was to walk about five miles into Virginia. The marchers, including a by then tired and dusty group from Temple Emanuel, already had walked about seven miles, and no one was surprised when the humidity and the heat cranked up in Virginia. Although it was hot and dry, before long the two big white buses appeared on the other side of a broad river, and as they started crossing the bridge they noticed that they were crossing the Roanoke River. This is the same river that starts on Poor Mountain, above Roanoke, and it was fitting that their journey that day ended on the banks of those beautiful waters.

Fri, December 14 2018 6 Tevet 5779