Rabbi Stern Speaks at NAACP/Philadelphia Black Clergy King Day Celebration

I am most grateful to Minister Rodney Muhammad for this opportunity to bring greetings from the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) here in Philadelphia. I am especially thrilled to once again speak here at Bright Hope Baptist Church, whose groundbreaking ceremony featured the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a speaker and whose fourth pastor, Rep. William Gray III, co-founded Operation Understanding, to help restore the once-strong connection between the African American and Jewish communities.

I recall most vividly the pall that fell over the campus of Princeton University on the day that Dr. King was assassinated. We walked around in shock, incredulous that such an inspiring leader, who embodied what America could finally become, could have been cut down in the prime of his life and at the very time that he had launched efforts to oppose the Vietnam War and fight poverty across the land, because he knew instinctively that the fate of the entire country was inextricably linked to the fate of each of our racial, religious, ethnic, and (we now understand) gender sub-communities. Of course, that shooting in Memphis was neither the first nor the last time that good and innocent blacks lost their lives at the hands of bigots and racists unable to imagine a world in which everyone could prosper.   

In remembering Dr. King, we must maintain the hope that sprang eternal within him, despite setbacks. Thank God he lived at least to see the beginning of changes in our system of laws, exciting for their time though still in great need of strengthening. 

I am proud that, in fulfillment of its mission “to advance equality and opportunity for all people in our pluralistic democracy,” the JSPAN board has approved an extensive document supporting the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement. In our statement, we recognize that:

There is a long history of injustice against Blacks in America, [and] critically important debates [are] going on now about how American political institutions and public policies, especially those connected with the provision of law and order, affect Black lives…. 

[A]s an organization committed to social justice, one that is powered by Jewish teaching and our own experience of discrimination at the hands of political authorities, JSPAN … commits to seeking concrete ways to take action, in conjunction with other groups, to bring about the necessary education and political, social and public policy changes that alone will end racism’s [systemic and structural] stranglehold on our political community.

To begin with, we are compiling resources for the Jewish community to use in an internal quest to understand the often unconscious but toxic role that racism and white privilege play in our society—including, I might add, how we Jews deal with the growing racial diversity in our own midst (believe me when I tell you that Jews come in all colors).

One of our board members and I, together with a half dozen other local rabbis, participated in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice this past summer, a march that started at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and ended in Washington, DC. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to talk with NAACP President Cornell William Brooks following a rally in Raleigh, NC—and I am sure JSPAN would be happy to be included in any program here in Philadelphia at which that brilliant leader would speak. In fact, I hope that anyone here today that imagines ways we could partner to help bring about meaningful change will keep us in mind.

When Minister Muhammad called me to invite me to today’s commemoration, he reminded me of the tragic 1964 murders in that other Philadelphia, in Mississippi, of Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Earl Chaney, two Jews and an African American devoted to ensuring voting rights for all—rights won soon after, but now, unbelievably, under attack once again. It is important to remember the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the diverse coalition that supported it. But at least as important, I believe, is to examine what challenges need to be addressed in our own day. I take inspiration from Carolyn Goodman, Andrew’s mother, who, at age 84—35 years after her son’s death—was jailed for protesting the brutal killing at the hands of New York police officers of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo. As she knew quite personally, history matters—and we must not forget it. But more important is to be inspired by it, so that we create solutions to the injustices of today. That is how we can truly honor Dr. King.