Standing outside Montgomery’s old Greyhound bus station, we read panels that described events from over 50 years ago. Just as we were about to leave, a car pulled up next to us and a gentleman rolled down his window. “I see you all looking at those signs. Let me tell you about them.” For the next 45 minutes he did, and we were riveted to his every word.
Rip Patton was one of the original Freedom Riders. In 1961, his heroic efforts were part of the larger movement for civil rights in this nation. Listening to him, we were inspired by his conviction, humbled by his bravery, and grateful for his willingness to share his story.
This chance encounter with a history-maker like Rip Patton was just one of the unique moments of Beth El Synagogue’s recent civil rights tour. We visited Birmingham’s civil rights museum and paid our respect at Dr. King’s memorial in Atlanta. We walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge and spoke with one of Selma’s four remaining Jews in the city’s Temple, Mishkan Israel. Along the way, we studied and sang, cried and prayed.
Meeting Rip brought this difficult chapter of American history to life. But this trip was more than a history lesson. It was as much about the present as about the past. That point was driven home at the Equal Justice Initiative’s new Legacy Museum in Montgomery. With gut-wrenching exhibits, the museum demonstrates that at the close of the Civil War, slavery didn’t end so much as evolve. Terror lynching, racial segregation, mass incarceration took its place. And in a variety of ways, racism and inequality have continued down to our day.
Witnessing injustice, Freedom Riders knew they had to respond. Albert Gordon was one such rider. A Jew who had fled Nazi Europe for New York knew he couldn’t stay at home and ignore what was happening: “When I saw the young people at the sit-ins and thought of the courage that they had to have, and then a couple years later seeing the bus in Anniston where people were so brutally beaten, I thought I just had to do something, and simply volunteered and proceeded.”
Like Patton, like Gordon, we cannot remain indifferent. A Midrash (Tanchuma, Mishpatim 2) on a verse from Proverbs makes this point: “The king established the land by justice. But one who sets himself apart destroys the land.” The rabbis explain: “if a person secludes himself at home declaring, “What concern are those problems to me? What do those rules mean to me? What do their words mean to me?” such a person destroys the world.” He may think that by separating himself, he will remain holy and pure. But his deeds and his attitude do great damage.
The Midrash comes to a surprising conclusion. It is not simply that a person who ignores troubles outside her home fails to strengthen justice in the land. Her unwillingness to respond undermines society by creating a culture of complacency and division that seeds destruction.
With Purim about to pass, we turn our attention to Pesach. At the seder, we are prompted to ask: “What does all his mean to me? What does ongoing discrimination have to do with me?” If we seclude ourselves for a seder but leave the questions on the table, we undermine justice with which God established the land.
Leaving the comfort of their homes, courageous Freedom Riders brought about the first unambiguous victory of the civil rights movement. May we carry their spirit with us on the next leg of the journey from slavery to freedom.