Remarks During the Launch of the Inaugural John Lewis Fellowship

On Monday, July 6, 2015, Judith S. Goldstein shared the following remarks to the inaugural class of John Lewis Fellows in Atlanta, Georgia. 

 

In February 2015, two articles appeared within the same week.  The one in the New York Times described the work of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. The other was by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker. The Stevenson initiative tracked 3,959 lynchings from 1887 to 1959 in 12 states in the South. At every one of these infamous places, Stevenson intends to place a mark of remembrance. 

Kolbert’s piece was mainly about three people: her great grandmother who was killed in Auschwitz; the so-called “bookkeeper of Auschwitz;” and a guard at Sobibor, Majdanek and one other death camp. The second person awaits trial in Germany, at the age of 93, for 300,000 instances of “accessory to murder.” A German court convicted the third as an accessory to murder on 28,000 counts. He appealed the verdict and died in a nursing home. 

In her essay of few words, Kolbert charted the episodic course of punishment for perpetrators of German crimes during the Holocaust. Following the Nuremberg trials there were spasms of forgetting and remembering from generation to generation. For perpetrators there were long safe periods of escape from trails and punishment.  For the survivors there were long periods of simply repressing the past. 

Kolbert writes about visiting Berlin to remember and place a marker, a Stolperstein (the word for something one trips over) on the street where her great grandmother lived before deportation. There are over 50,000 of these markers that blend art and reportage. In preparing to place her grandmother’s name on a small concrete block and insert it into the sidewalk or street, Kolbert quoted Martin Luther King’s proclamation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  He cautioned as well, as she quoted further: “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”

While Kolbert in Berlin directly invoked King’s moral authority, I would not be surprised if Stevenson in Mobile looked to the commemorative stones in Germany and other European countries as a powerful tool of remembrance. The important connections between American racism and the Holocaust, however, are not limited to symbolic remembrance. Racism in American and anti-Semitism in Europe embody the two most catastrophic strains of hatred of the last century. Although they are deeply entwined in the generic category of abominations, a stunning disconnect in justice pertains to the two. The US successfully engaged in the war to destroy German Fascism and, as a byproduct but not really a primary goal, to end the anti-Semitic genocide. While America justified its war in Europe in the name of liberty and freedom, it maintained its own impregnable racist state in one-third of the country. 

The crimes that derived from Nazi domination Europe, in large part led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention in the late 1940s. They were regarded as imperative for a Europe recovering from the devastation of the war and ongoing colonial relationships. The US was party to both documents, but they were aimed at moral recovery in Europe.  It took almost 20 years for the civil rights movement to hold America accountable to its ideals of freedom and liberty, the justifications for fighting Hitler, and the newly formulated human rights doctrines. Only in the 1960s did the civil rights campaigns tear down legally sanctioned discrimination in the South and North. 

It is too little recognized that restorative justice in regard to racism is a trans-Atlantic imperative. The histories of racism in the US and Europe are entwined as a result of the Second World War but that history goes back hundreds of years. From the 17th Century on, European explorers and settlers were desperate to turn this continent into wealth. Over several centuries, immigrants with few assets were driven by the vertigo of speculation in building a new society. In the process they stripped Native Americans of their wealth and eagerly diminished that population. With blacks, slavery and Jim Crow had the opposite goal: increase their numbers to exploit their cheap labor; make them impotent by breaking down their families, spirit, and histories. The American dream is often thought of as providing mobility for all. It hasn’t worked that way for blacks and poor whites. How do we explain that the false dream lives on anyway? What makes poor whites accept their destitute state even to this day? President Lyndon Johnson said it best: "If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.  Hell, give him someone to look down on and he’ll empty his pockets for you." 

For a month at this outstanding Center, this Humanity in Action international group will explore these interrelated, trans-Atlantic histories and contemporary challenges of civil rights, human rights, racism, anti-Semitism and genocide. We approach them with a common legacy and common responsibility to remember and understand—to defy what King feared as facing these issues “too late.” The focus in Atlanta is on American diversity; the focus in the Humanity in Action European programs is, in particular, on specific national histories. But the two sets of programs share a common base of pedagogy: mixing historical inquiries with contemporary issues. 

While acknowledging the trans-Atlantic connections based upon race and minorities, it is equally important to recognize the strikingly different histories of race in America and Europe. In Europe, the historic reference for all Humanity in Action programs is the Holocaust when for more than 13 years minorities were under siege—and Jews in particular—as well as democratic societies. As education, urbanization and a modernized capitalistic system fueled the ascendance of democratic societies in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Jews were able to enhance their status in Europe and America.  In fact Jews have been feared and pilloried for their success. 

For blacks, the American story is totally different. Immigrants from Europe stole land, culture and livelihoods from Native Americans. Entrepreneurs of the slave trade and the slave economy accumulated wealth by sitting in Amsterdam, Liverpool, Copenhagen, the Caribbean Islands and, of course, in the ever expanding South and major 18th and 19th Century American cities from Providence to New York. Exploited for their labor and deemed inferior for their racial differences, blacks have been singularly deprived of essential tools of mobility: education, capitol accumulation, free movement and professional advancement. Gunar Myrdal wrote of this social and economic torture in his 1944 publication of An American Dilemma: “White prejudice and the consequent discrimination against the Negroes block their efforts to raise their low plane of living; this, on the other hand, forms part of the causation of the prejudice on the side of the whites which leads them to discriminatory behavior.” (New Yorker: February 16, 2015, p 69) 

Racism in America is at the epicenter of American history, the essential DNA, while it continues deeply to affect our current national life. Obviously there are a multiplicity of other forces and influences that have shaped American history and life: revolutionary and constitutional doctrines and canons; immigration to the New World; a land blessed with rich natural resources and a vast geographic expanse; capitalism; and many domestic and international wars. But I would suggest that racism has shaped or was shaped by almost every one of these events or phenomena.

Joining the histories of blacks and Jews—narratives so deeply suffused with poisoned racial beliefs and practices in Europe and the US—importantly transcends the negative connections and tragic histories. In fact, these histories intertwine through the most idealistic expectations and investments in making more equitable societies.  Both blacks in America (in a country that also built anti-Semitic barriers in so many spheres and restricted immigration from Asia, Eastern and Southern Europe) and Jews in Europe looked upon democratic ideals as the way to break free of traditions of exclusion and prejudice. Blacks in America provide the most enduring and tested faith in the dream: they have waited the longest for the promises to be realized for them. 

In America, Jews and blacks often found a common base of hope and inequity. Let me cite one example. In June 1961 Rabbi Walter Plaut, joined a freedom ride to Virginia, the Carolina, Georgia and Florida. He went with a small mixed group of ministers and other professionals—mixed in terms of black and white. Sponsored by Core and invoking non-violent methods, they were testing whether public facilities at bus terminals were violating federal law and a Supreme Court decision. (Irene Morgan case of 1946 before the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Bruce Bointon case of 1960 before the Supreme Court).

They were engaged in direct social action to uphold moral principles. That battle had started for him in Berlin in the late 1930s. In Raleigh, North Carolina, he saw a drinking fountain with a sing that stated “Negroes,” It triggered painful memories: “I remembered my childhood in Europe, in the Tiergarten Platz. There were many benches on which I couldn’t sit and these said, ‘Juden’—‘Jews.’” (P. 186) In Tallahassee, confronted by a policeman messaging his gun, the Rabbi remembered Berlin again. “The image of Europe came to me again, with an SS man coming to my home with his hand on his holster, saying, ‘Raus’” (P. 191) Most of Plaut”s family died in the Holocaust. Walter Plaut escaped Germany in 1937 when he was 17 years old and came to the US. 

In 1961, while serving as a rabbi in a small temple in Great Neck, New York, he recounted the powerful meaning of the Freedom Ride. “I think this trip was meant to be a trip taken against lethargy, against the philosophy that all is well in the world, against leaving well enough alone, against the philosophy of comfort at any price, of prosperity at any price, against the philosophy which says that you can solve your problems by remaining morally neutral. Stated positively, I think that this trip was an action taken towards being aware, toward becoming involved, for zeal, yes, for storming the heavens and for social change, which is never achieved without casualties.” (Heritage and Hope: Dialogues in Judaism, editor by Rabbi William Berkowitz, NY, 1965. Thomas Yoseloff, (p196). 

As we begin to explore these issues let me say that I don’t think you will storm the heavens in Atlanta but this is going to be tough work for all of us. We are going to have to balance our individual passions and prejudices (and we all have a surfeit of both) with each other. For this month, we are going to have to accept the challenges and limitations of discussion as opposed to activism, although we expect that discussion will lead to activism. You have all signed on to participate in this experiment with the Humanity in Action pedagogy. I suspect you will find it frustrating at times. But you are taking on the risk with us and we are taking on a risk with you. 

The issues are extremely difficult. Deep tensions centered on minorities are still “alive and well” in both America and Europe!  There is no question that as Europe becomes more diverse due to migrations from former colonies, the Middle East and Africa, for both economic and political reasons, racism has once again become an ugly force on that Continent. There are deep tensions towards blacks from the former colonies, towards Muslims and Arabs from the Middle East and North Africa and towards Jews. The tensions not only pit the so-called host or native white populations against the minorities but pit minorities against each other—particularly Muslims and Arabs and Jews. Anti-Semitism is “alive and well” on both the right and left of European political life as hidden and recognized viruses of hatred and fantasies center on Israel. In America, blacks continue to face discriminatory drug laws, arrests and imprisonment practices aimed at them; excessive force and violence aimed at them, excessive tickets and courts costs aimed at them to raise money for white police departments; exploitive mortgage rates; voting restrictions; impediments to quality education; employment; and residential segregation. 

Over the past 18 years, Fellows have asked about the meaning of action. Action for Humanity in Action means investigating and resisting old and new hatreds wrapped in both self-righteous religious and secular beliefs. These are the forces that seek to drive politics in Europe and the US. Action for Humanity in Action is building a community that trusts itself to think through the growing chaos of stereotypes and to combat the tools of exclusiveness, fear and ignorance used to gain power. The power of John Lewis and Martin Luther King is to hold all Americans to the promise of equality and justice. Their fight for civil rights was grounded first in the South and particularly in Atlanta. But their messages about human rights, restorative justice and historical knowledge of racial hatreds belong to all of us in America, Europe and beyond. 

 

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About the Author

Judith S. Goldstein founded Humanity in Action in 1997 and has served as its Executive Director ever since. Under Judith’s leadership, Humanity in Action has organized educational programs on international affairs, diversity and human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, the Netherlands and the United States. She received her Ph.D in history from Columbia University and was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar for her MA studies. Judith has written several books and articles about European and American history, art and landscape architecture. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and several boards and advisory groups.

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