On Visiting Civil Rights Sites, Fighting Terrorism, and Choosing Life

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On Visiting Civil Rights Sites, Fighting Terrorism, and Choosing Life

On Visiting Civil Rights Sites, Fighting Terrorism, and Choosing Life

I have been a civil rights lawyer for more than 20 years. However, I had never visited the civil rights sites in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee with my family, so I planned a trip, taking the kids out of school last week. All week, I thought about what I can say about these places that have defined the history of our country, the world, and my career.


Klansmen kidnapped fifteen year-old Emmett Till on an ordinary night from where he was sleeping at the home of relatives in northern Mississippi. They beat and murdered and tossed him, tied to a heavy metal fan, into the Tallahatchie River, which we crossed driving last week. He was Black and whistled in the presence of a white woman who was tending a shop where he went to buy…what? The terrorists who killed him were proud, and suffered no consequences, acquitted in an hour by an all-white jury, because Blacks in 1955 could not vote and so could not be jurors in Mississippi, and whites did not see Blacks as human beings. Blacks would show up to register to vote and be asked to pass a test: “How many bubbles fit in a bar of soap?” or “How many jellybeans are in this large jar?”- the unanswerable, so murderers were never held to answer. And some would be lynched just for trying to vote, or because family members voted – like when Calvin Mike voted in 1884 in Georgia and saw his home burned and his elderly mother and two young daughters, Emma and Lillie, lynched by a white mob. There were 6,500 lynchings counted, from the end of the Civil War to 1950- publicized beforehand often, with as many as 10,000 spectators buying snacks and souvenirs and witnessing each murder. How many uncounted?


Ida B. Wells spoke out against lynching famously in the 19th century, publishing books like “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases,” which told the world all that was happening more than 60 years before Emmett Till’s abduction and murder. It did not stop. She said Blacks should arm themselves because when white aggressors began to run “as great a risk of biting the dust” (her words) every time their Black victims did, whites would have greater respect for Black lives.


This made me think of the Hamas lynchings last week. They publicly, proudly abducted and murdered Jewish people from their homes at dawn on a sacred day of rest. Hamas massacred them at a peace festival. They slaughtered babies and seniors and teenagers alike, for the crime of living in a predominantly Jewish state of about 9 million diverse people wedged between nearly half a billion Arabs in the Middle East, most of whom live in countries committed to Israel’s destruction. Hamas and its backers in Iran want to sabotage peace between any Arab nations and Israel, to wipe Israel from the map and drive all its inhabitants into the sea – genocide- quoting from the Hamas charter.


My friends from Manipur in Northeastern India, the Benei Menashe, whose only dream was to reach our Biblical homeland, lay hidden in terrified silence on the floors of their Sderot homes in southern Israel. They prayed not to be massacred, as they saw through the spaces between closed window shades their neighbors being dragged from their homes to their deaths at the hands of heavily-armed terrorists. Hamas came in a sneak attack looking to kidnap and murder as many civilians as possible. One Benei Menashe family’s home was utterly destroyed by a Hamas missile, all their immigrant belongings in charred ruins, though most of the 4,500+ Hamas missiles fired this past week into Jewish communities were defended by remarkable Israeli technology funded in significant part by the U.S.


The Jewish people learned from the Holocaust as much as from Hillel, who said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Now. We will not wait for more lynchings. We will heed Ida B. Wells. When terrorists come for us, we will strike back and destroy them. Only then will others be deterred. As a Hezbollah leader stated more than a decade ago, after Israel retaliated for a Hezbollah murder of two Israelis- “If I had known … that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”


We will warn innocents – get as far away from the murderers as you can, so no harm will come to you. And then we will protect ourselves, as we must. There are those righteous ones who will help us, but only if we help ourselves.


There are times for legal victories, like those of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall and Fred Gray. There are times for civil disobedience – Rosa Parks saying to the Montgomery, Alabama segregationist “You may do that,” when he says he will arrest her unless she demeans herself. We even march children before Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses, because if the world does not see and respond to their cruelty, they will bomb our sanctuaries, just like those terrorists did at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. There is time for mobilizing, too – we will cross that bridge named for a Klansman in Selma, Edmund Pettus, over and over, and walk for days, until they realize we must have a seat at the table, a stake in civilization, a voice in our own fate, not just a supporting role in yours.


MLK lived for peace but showed there were things for which we must fight and die. “Peace is not the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice.”


As the expression goes, we will die for this belief if needed, but mainly, we will live for it. Deuteronomy (D’varim) 30:19, “This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live!” I pray everyone will choose life.


Bryan Schwartz

October 16, 2023

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