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Why I went – and went back – to St. Augustine, Fla.

by Rabbi Richard Levy

June 18, 2014 | 10:58 am

<em>image via Shutterstock.com</em>

image via Shutterstock.com

On June 18, 1964, during one of the most violent years of the civil rights struggle, I and 15 other Reform rabbis spent a night in a jail in St. Augustine, Fla. We had responded to an invitation from Martin Luther King Jr. to join him in a demonstration against segregation there, and most of us felt we were acting on the Torah’s imperative that we Jews “Remember that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt.” 

This week, exactly 50 years later, I and a good percentage of the others went back there, this time at the invitation of the Jewish community of St. Augustine. Unbeknownst to us, they had collected all the memorabilia they could from our initial visit — apparently, the largest mass incarceration of rabbis in American history.  

In 1964, St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, was preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary the following year; King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had decided to stage a campaign against discrimination there, hoping to help win support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

I was 27 and had been ordained a rabbi just two weeks before. Another of the 16, Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, now also of Los Angeles, was a year older, but the rest of the group were middle-aged men (no women rabbis 50 years ago), some of whom were major leaders in the Reform movement. We were arrested for trying to integrate two restaurants and a motel swimming pool, and the police deposited us in the city’s un-air-conditioned, segregated jail, run by a sheriff who was the head of the local Ku Klux Klan. By the light of the sole light bulb dangling outside our clammy cell, our only nourishment jars of baby food thrown into our midst, we (mostly the senior members of the group) wrote an elegant statement explaining our motivations, titled “Why We Went.” 

“We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us,” we wrote in our three-page letter. By coming to this violent, Klan-run city, we hoped to show our admiration for King and wanted to share in the “opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means.” We wrote that we did not want to stand idly by the blood of our brothers and sisters, as so many had done just 25 years before while 6 million of our people were slaughtered in Europe, and that we had come “in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.”

But why, this week, did I go again?  In part, to help the Jews of St. Augustine in their effort not to forget their city’s bloody past, and because they want, bless them, to honor us for standing up for Jewish values at a time when too many white people were afraid to stand up for anything.  My colleagues and I want to thank them for their generosity. 

But I did not go back to the South this week simply to note how much St. Augustine has changed; I also intended to remind us all how much remains to be done. 

Segregation, we must remember, is not dead — it has only changed form. In her 2012 book, “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander reveals how young black men have been disproportionately targeted through the tentacles of the war on drugs, and are often convicted far more harshly than whites for similar offenses, to the extent that a shocking 80 percent of young black men have permanent prison or probation records. These men have been scarred by prisons that do not prepare them for useful lives outside; prisons built with funds that might otherwise go to building schools; prisons that seem, essentially, to train inmates only to return to jail. I wanted to remind myself of our own jail cell, in which we rabbis had a fair amount of room, while the African-Americans arrested with us, who outnumbered us 5-to-1, were jam-packed into the same-size cell. Seeing them there that night was shocking, and yet, today, I wonder: How much have our prisons changed in 50 years?

I went back to St. Augustine this week because I wanted to ask myself, again: What causes are worth being jailed for? Opposing the cruel incarceration of young blacks? Fighting lax gun laws, even as so many of our lawmakers are more concerned about losing the National Rifle Association’s support than about the mass shootings that occur with ever-greater frequency?  

In 1964, St. Augustine was a very unsafe place for blacks; in 2014, America is becoming more and more unsafe for everyone. Is there any connection between the power of the Klan in St. Augustine law enforcement 50 years ago and that of a national association that seems to hold that the right to keep a gun in one’s house outweighs the reasonable rights of other people to safety in their towns or schools? And consider this cruel irony: During the first 300 years of St. Augustine’s history, black slaves were brought here against their will; today, undocumented immigrants looking merely for a better life are hounded back over the border, deported for minor traffic infractions to homes some never knew.  

I am hoping that revisiting that city can call attention to some of these ragged edges of the country to which our own ancestors immigrated looking for a sanctuary from the violence they faced in other lands. 

So much has been accomplished and so much remains to be done. 

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