By Cantor Shannon McGrady Bane
Work of Hands – Prayers of Feet
Clarity of vision
Courage of speech
Strength of shoulder
Work of hands
Wisdom of heart
Tenderness of embrace
Hardness of seat
Endurance of legs
Prayers of feet
“I felt my legs were praying.”
So said the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1965 on marching from Selma to Montgomery with The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in support of voting rights for black Americans.
This weekend we honor the memory of Martin Luther King. We honor his dreams for a better world, and we are inspired again by the poetry and purpose of his words. In addition to Dr. King, we remember the thousands of brave men and women who, at great personal risk, struggled for civil rights.
Last June, as part of the national convention for the American Conference of Cantors, I had the privilege of visiting the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. King. The museum chronicles key episodes of the American civil rights movement and hopes to inspire participation in civil and human rights globally. (www.civilrightsmuseum.org)
In viewing the permanent exhibit, I was reminded of the simple, determined acts of bravery by black people in the American South – people like Rosa Parks who refused after a long day’s work to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, or like the Greensboro Four, who dared to order coffee at a whites-only lunch counter in Woolworths. Non-violent protestors faced harassment, imprisonment, beatings, even death.
We Jews can be proud of our role in furthering black civil rights. Jews marched shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King. Our rabbis went to jail for crossing the color line. More than half of the young people who helped African Americans register to vote in 1964’s “Freedom Summer” were Jewish, and two of our sons, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, along with local black Mississippian James Earl Chaney, were abducted and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Did you know that Dr. King gave a speech to the Reform Jewish community at the Biennial Banquet on 20 November 1963? (Just two days later, our nation mourned the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.) In this excerpt, Dr. King talks about the importance of changing our nation’s laws to address systemic injustice. (www.rac.org/50/shabbat_tzedek)
It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important also. And so there is a need for legislation in this period of social change, and if we are to achieve excellence in this nation, we must see the need for legislation…..The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
For 30 years almost every major piece of civil rights legislation was strategized and organized at the Religious Action Center (“the RAC”) of the Reform Jewish movement. In fact, the historic Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 were drafted in the RAC’s conference room.
I urge you to take four minutes and watch the RAC’s inspiring video on the Jewish role in the civil rights movement. [Watch Video Here]
This Martin Luther King weekend, it is fitting that we also celebrate the Religious Action Center’s 50th anniversary. All across the country, Reform congregations are participating in Shabbat Tzedek, a Shabbat of Justice, as we acknowledge the RAC’s excellent, skilled leadership in both lobbying Congress and educating us about the important social justice issues of the day.
Let us remember that each of us has a role to play in making this world a better place. We start with ourselves, with being mindful of the choices we make and their impact on the planet and the people around us. We gather our courage, and like Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel, like the RAC, we advocate. We organize. We speak truth to power. We try to heal the broken places in our world.