Thirty-five years ago this month, the ground shifted under American democracy. On March 7, 1965, 600 people attempted to walk from Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery, less than 70 miles away. They wanted to ask Governor George Wallace for just one thing: the right to vote.
"Negroes" was the correct word at the time to describe these marchers. Mostly, they were called by a corruption of that word. At the head of the line were two young men, both in their mid-20s. John Lewis and Hosea Williams were ministers of the Gospel. Both of them--and many others--almost died at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. as Alabama State Troopers forced them to disperse by riding horses into their midst, clubbing them with night sticks and peppering them with tear gas. It was called Bloody Sunday.
Twice more, groups tried to cross that bridge. The third time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a phalanx of leaders from across the religious spectrum (including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) succeeded under the protection of the United States Army. Three hundred people completed the walk to Montgomery; 25,000 accompanied them by the time they entered the capital city. The third crossing took place on March 21. This year, that day is Purim.
The Civil Rights Movement and Purim: What's the Connection?
It may strike you as incongruous to celebrate such a raucous and irreverent holiday while trying to call to mind the heroics of the civil rights movement. On the other hand, the intersection of commemorations holds for us the chance to glean the one truly serious lesson of the Book of Esther.
In chapter four, Queen Esther learns from Mordecai that the evil Haman has hatched a nefarious plot to kill the Jews of Persia. Mordecai urges her to use her office to avert the decree. Esther, who has concealed her Jewish identity from the king, is reluctant to come out of the closet, as it were. She is afraid that the king will not wish to see her and have her put to death. She wants to save her own skin.
But Mordecai challenges her with some of the most stirring words in all our tradition: Do not imagine that you alone among the Jews will escape with your life in the king's palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, rescue and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere, while you and your father's household will perish. And who knows--perhaps for this very moment have you ascended to royalty!
Considering his words, Esther decides to take a chance. "And," she says, "if I die, I die."
For a story which begins like the ill-fated "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire," the Book of Esther certainly takes a serious turn. Mordecai's challenge to Esther raises for all of us the question of how we use the opportunities presented to us to make a positive difference in our world. Esther was an orphan being raised by her uncle. The megillah says she had neither father nor mother, perhaps a hint that she had not much connection to the traditions of her parents. She lived in a multi-cultural environment; the Book of Esther mentions 127 nations which made up the Persian empire at the time. Yet, she became the queen of all of Persia, chosen from among all the entrants in the king's pageant. She concealed her Jewishness, and apparently had no trouble doing so. Esther became the most powerful woman in all of Persia seemingly by an accident of genes--her beauty --and by being in the right place at the right time.
Maybe it was not such an accident after all. When Mordecai suggests to Esther that it may have been for this opportunity that she "ascended to royalty," there is a subtle play on words in Hebrew. The word for royalty, malkhut, is frequently a code word for God in classical rabbinic interpretion, or midrash. One understanding of Mordecai's words is: maybe this is the time to realize the divine potential you have.
Esther was not a great religious figure--in fact, she was as assimilated as she could be. Yet, when she understood the potential she had to make a difference in the world, she stepped out of her comfort zone and desire to protect herself and became willing to make the ultimate sacrifice: "if I die, I die." Fortunately, she did not; but she realized that she, an ordinary person with an extraordinary opportunity, could only fulfill her purpose in this world by taking that chance.
The Walks We Take
And perhaps, too, she recognized the truth of Mordecai's words. When justice is at stake, a champion will arise. And if that person fails, another will step forward, and so on until justice prevails. The short walk which took her from her chambers to the palace was one she might have taken on an ordinary day. The short walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was one any citizen of Selma might have taken on an ordinary day. On one day, however, the same ordinary short walk was the path to justice which ordinary people must sometimes travel.
Today, Hosea Williams remains active in the causes of justice. John Lewis represents the 5th district of Georgia in the House of Representatives. They look back on their early years as the sons of sharecroppers, the children of segregation, and they can see the long path they have traveled, longer than the road from Selma to Montgomery. They were two ordinary young men who went for a walk and wound up changing the nation.
You walk familiar paths every day. Perhaps because they are so familiar, you miss noticing the opportunities along the way. The city repaves a street in the commercial district, while the sidewalk in front of an older neighbor's home is dangerously crumbling. Your child's school raises money for a sophisticated computer, while the school down the road raises money for a sophisticated metal detector. You carry the groceries from the car to the kitchen, while the man on the corner carries his belongings to the shelter. Remember Shushan, and Selma, and take that short walk: across the bridge, into the palace. The small acts you perform may be nothing less than the way to realize your divine potential.
Five Short Walks to Social Justice
- The polling place. The elemental civil right in this country is voting. The issues may seem more important in national elections, but your vote counts for more--and has more direct impact on your community--in local elections. Exercise the franchise!
- The next neighborhood. Step into the place someone else lives and look at how people are living. Perhaps you will see what your own circumstances can bring to your neighbors. Perhaps you will see what your neighbors can teach you. Seek out a friend or a local activist who lives there.
- The post office. Write a letter on a matter which concerns you and mail it to a local, state or national legislator. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper calling attention to an issue which needs community focus. Suggest a course of action.
- The human services department of your local government. Every city or town has more than its share of people in need. Your presence in the life of someone who needs a tutor, a coach, a driver or a big brother/sister can make the difference between a life of hope and one of frustration.
- A sponsored group walk. Your community has them - especially in the spring. They may support medical research, a political cause, Israel or a food bank. By joining with others and acting as representative for your sponsors, you can bring attention to your cause, help to raise necessary funds and network with others who will continue the walk with you, on other days, in other ways.