Moses in Montgomery.

Parashat D’varim

This Shabbat we begin D’varim, the book of Deuteronomy — “Moses’ Last Stand.” Not a military campaign, though this final book of the Torah certainly has those, too. But Moses isn’t remembered as a warrior. He’s Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher. And in just a few months’ worth of parashiyot, the Israelites will be continuing their journey without him. The Israelites will enter the Promised Land; Moses will not. Graduation, if you will. So Moses, the teacher, digs his heels into the wilderness sand and commits to making sure they take the most important educational lessons and values of their journey with them. He wants to ensure that these teachings are not just stored somewhere in their memories, but etched upon their hearts — it’s that important, they need to be. So he pulls out all the stops…

For the audio learners, he repeats virtually everything he’s said and taught in the other books of the Torah — and sometimes, as we well know, he repeats it again and again and again. For the visual learners, he uses props — carving the Ten Commandments into tablets of stone, for example, and fashioning an ark in which they can be carried with them always. And for the kinesthetic learners, Moses gets their whole bodies engaged — pronouncing blessings from Mount Gerizim and curses from Mount Ebal; six tribes on each mountain, with the Levites in between, like a camp-wide game of Red Rover.

All of the tactics Moses deploys are for a purpose: So that the narrative of the Israelites’ journey — their degradation in slavery, their deliverance to the wilderness, their covenant with God, and their hopes for the future in the Promised Land — will be remembered and serve as inspiration from generation to generation to generation.

Never again will there be another prophet like Moses, we are told. And that’s probably so. Every prophet is her own person; has his own style and techniques. But there have been inspired orators, courageous organizers, masterful teachers who, if not made from the same mold as Moses, seem to be cut from similar cloth. 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., bore the comparison more often than most, and seemed to embrace it — never more fully than when, on the day before he was assassinated, he declared, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And [God’s] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not be there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” And the fact that King’s words, like Moses’, endure — the narrative he told, the way he encapsulated history, the success with which he turned the past into abiding courage for the present and inspiration for the future — tells us the comparison might have been warranted indeed.

I believe there’s another who deserves consideration, as well. Have you heard the name Bryan Stevenson? Civil rights lawyer, Bryan Stevenson? If not, you should. Get your hands on his book, Just Mercy. Look up his organization, (EJI) The Equal Justice Initiative. Listen to his TedTalk, “We Need to Talk about an Injustice.” Read the memoir of his client, Anthony Ray Hinton, called The Sun Does Shine. (Oprah made it her summer book club pick, and we’ll be discussing it this fall in Adult Ed.) And if you’re as inspired and blown away by all of it as I’ve been, then take a trip to Montgomery.

Last weekend, a friend and I made what might be described as a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama. It was from Montgomery that I had flown back to Charleston in 2015, following the terror that infamous June night at Mother Emanuel. So while I had been to Atlanta and Selma, Jackson and Memphis, I had not seen the civil rights landmarks of Montgomery — and there are several. Last weekend we toured the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center. We saw Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the only church Martin Luther King, Jr., ever served as solo pastor. (He preached from his father’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.) Only one block from the Alabama State Capitol — nearly in its shadow — we saw the footprints painted on the street outside the church’s doors, commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights. And we walked around the grounds of the Capitol building, noting the Confederate flags that have come down; the statues that remain — the discussion of which was prompted by the same devastating event that had necessitated my flying home three years ago. 

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But the main reason we had felt called to Montgomery didn’t exist three years ago: A new museum and memorial established by Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative that, to paraphrase the New York Times, are unlike anything this country has ever seen. And both, in the tradition of Moses, employ a wide range of educational and technological tools to exceptional effect.

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The Legacy Museum, established on the site of a former warehouse that once imprisoned enslaved blacks, traces our nation’s foundational history from enslavement to mass incarceration. It tells this single story in four chapters: Kidnapped. Terrorized. Segregated. Incarcerated. But it’s one story; four iterations. Eventually (though with a stunning lack of speed) our legal system outlawed slavery, lynching, and segregation. But laws have merely sublimated certain expressions of white supremacy, allowing others to take their place; they haven’t eradicated its existence. And if there’s any doubt there’s a straight line connecting each chapter back to slavery, consider one image in the museum: A prison in Louisiana. The prison is built on the grounds of a former plantation. In the photo, a supervisor, on horseback, drives a line of dark-skinned prisoners performing labor farmed out for cheap and for which they will never receive a cent. As disturbing as the scene is, it finds grounding in the Constitution, whose Thirteenth Amendment outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime.”

So how do you teach a narrative in which we are still so immersed as a nation? The EJI knows there’s only one effective way: You immerse the learner in your teaching. 

The first chapter of this story is slavery. After a film that dramatizes the emotion of a father torn from his daughter, and an animated map that conveys the rapid growth of the domestic slave trade and its widespread displacement of parents and children, husbands and wives, visitors descend a dark ramp. Behind bars, in 5 or 6 cells, holograms, white as ghosts, share firsthand accounts of their imprisonment in the space in which you stand. As a mother begs the listener to, “Please find my children… I know they’re here somewhere; I can feel them,” and a brother and sister a few cells down call out for their mother, the connection to our present moment in history is immediate and visceral. Once in the main warehouse space, quotes are not merely displayed on walls, they’re printed on panels of silk mounted from floor to ceiling — and so you have to weave your way among descriptions that alternate between a slave trader’s catalogue of his “stock,” and testimony of those torn from their families and “sold down the river.”

In the second chapter, the widespread terror of lynching is made tangible through a display of earth collected in clear jars on long shelves. Each jar’s contents, ranging from near black soil to red rock, were collected from sites where the Institute has documented a lynching took place. Individuals’ names, the county and date of their lynching, are printed in white. In this way, the scope of more than 4,000 documented lynchings, 185 in the state of South Carolina, begins to sink in… 3 in Dorchester Country, 9 in Florence County, one in Georgetown County — in 1941! But there’s even more immersion at the nearby National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Here there are 800 steel monuments, one for each county in which lynchings are documented to have occurred. Visitors walk between the monuments — reading states, counties, names, and dates — until the floor descends and the monuments appear to rise up, invoking the physicality of the lynchings themselves. And then you’re walking beneath the monuments, reading now the “reasons” for which the lynchings took place: Participation in a protest, speaking to a white woman, “standing around” in a white neighborhood, daring to cast a vote.

Back in the museum, in the third chapter, the utter absurdity and deep entrenchment of segregation takes shape. Another floor to ceiling display reproduces the wide ranging laws that kept blacks and whites separate in this country, from water fountains to barber shops to card games. Another display, resembling a periodic table, catalogues Supreme Court cases whose decisions either expanded civil rights or contracted them. Complicated court history is distilled down to literal black and white: 20 landmark decisions upheld the civil rights of minorities in this country; 47 ruled against them.

And then in the fourth chapter, the current chapter, we confront our era of mass incarceration. Here there are reproduced letters, desperate, written to the Equal Justice Initiative by prisoners. There’s a film that takes you inside notoriously violent St. Clair Correctional Facility, against which the EJI filed a successful class action suit on behalf of its prisoners. But most powerful are these: Reproduced visitation booths in which you, the visitor, sit down in front of a screen, pick up a black wall-mounted phone, and listen to former prisoners tell you their stories of wrongful imprisonment, juvenile life-sentences, and harrowing prison treatment. 

With each of these immersive teaching techniques, the data of each chapter — the narrative — not only emerges, but sticks. Ivy League colleges selling enslaved Africans to fund scholarships for white students. An advertisement by the Dallas County Citizens Council in a Selma, Alabama, newspaper: “Ask Yourself This Important Question,” the headline reads, “What have I personally done to maintain segregation?” (The implication being, have you done enough?) The findings of a 1960 report that “if school integration in the South were to continue at its 1959 rate, it would take 4,000 years for all Southern Negro children to achieve their right to educational opportunity.” (Remember that the next time you hear a public official imploring a minority population to just be patient.) The statistic that 13 states have no minimum age for prosecuting a minor as an adult, including sentences of life imprisonment without parole and the death penalty (South Carolina included). Or that 2/3 — two thirds! — of those sitting in jail on any given day are awaiting trial.

Rabbi David Novak says of Moses: He dealt with people who came from many perspectives — those who accepted the covenant (their history), never looking beneath the surface; those who refused to affirm they were part of the covenant; those who affirmed the covenant, but who struggled to understand what that means, what it demanded of them. Yet Moses never gave up on his people. Martin Luther King affirmed his faith in humanity and their arrival in the Promised Land. And with the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and memorial, Stevenson isn’t giving up either. It’s hard to imagine any American encountering these immersive exhibits and not leaving changed, charged, challenged in some way. 

As you exit the museum, a series of photos summarize much of what you’ve seen. But this time, they ask questions, as well. Do you believe all slavery should be abolished? Why does it say about us as a society that we imprison – that we execute – both the old and the young? And as you reflect upon their answers, there’s one more exhibit: A large interactive touch-screen that asks: “What Do I Do Now?” At this display you can sign a petition to change the Thirteenth Amendment and abolish all forms of slavery, once and for all. You can sign a petition to integrate schools in Alabama. (That’s right, integrate schools in Alabama. According to the Alabama state constitution, integrated schooling is still illegal — and state referenda to change the Constitution have failed, in 2012 most recently.) And perhaps most important of all, there’s a tab on the screen where, if you have not already, before you leave the museum, you can register to vote. 

When I told people I was going to Montgomery, they asked, “Why?” When I told them I was going to learn about slavery and lynching and mass incarceration, they said, after a beat, “Have fun?” And, no, it wasn’t fun. But it was incredibly empowering — because that’s what good teaching, from a good teacher, does. Armed with knowledge of the past, you can impact the future. Understanding the story, you write the ending. 

Ultimately, I came home from Montgomery with everything the National Memorial for Peace and Justice asks us to hold dear:

With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.

With courage because peace requires bravery.

With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.

With faith because we shall overcome.

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