Friday night I went (via Zoom, of course) to the M.V. Hebrew Center’s annual service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When I first attended a few years ago, I knew next to nothing about Rabbi Heschel (1907–1972), an eminent Jewish theologian and civil rights activist. I’m not religious, but in these challenging times we all need inspiration and faith to keep going and that service is one place where I find it without fail.
This year was no exception. Between the music, the readings, and the words, this year may have outdone itself. Singing spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” connected us all and reminded us that this struggle for dignity, justice, and freedom has been going on far longer than any of us have been alive, and against worse odds.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman spoke of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt — how with Pharaoh’s armies approaching, the terrified Israelites cried out to Moses and Moses told them not to be afraid, the Lord would save them. The Lord, however, had another idea: “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward.” Whereupon the Red Sea parted, the Israelites crossed over, and, to quote from another song, “Pharoah’s armies got drownded.” (This is all in Exodus 14. Look it up in Bible Gateway, where you can pick your version. It’s a great story.)
Have faith. Keep going. Since I’m not a believer, I don’t think any divine being is going to create our road forward, but I do believe that by moving forward we create that road. Giving up won’t do it, and neither (I love this part of the Exodus story) will expecting God to do the heavy lifting. Have faith. Keep going. The words have been reverberating in my mind all weekend.
As it happens, this weekend I got to experience how this works. The Martha’s Vineyard Democrats, of which I’m currently the secretary, and Indivisible MVY had planned a March for Voting Rights for Saturday afternoon, in response to a call from Martin Luther King Jr.’s family for nationwide actions against voter suppression and in favor of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act (now combined in one bill), which is in danger of not getting through the U.S. Senate. “No celebration without legislation!” they said.
They urged organizers to include a bridge in their plans, to memorialize the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. On that day, peaceful marchers setting out to walk from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery for voting rights were brutally set upon by law enforcement. Many, including the young John Lewis, were seriously injured. Television coverage of the event galvanized the nation, or at least some of it, and helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the act, and the Republican Party, nationally and at the state level, has been working hard ever since to limit the access of people of color, poor people, and young people, among others, to the ballot.
The obvious bridge of choice on the Vineyard was the drawbridge between Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, a mile or so up the road from our favorite rallying point at Five Corners, so we went with that.
Toward the end of the week the weather forecast got worse and worse. Rain was forecast for Friday, after which temperatures would plummet into the single digits. The march route was along the Beach Road, where high winds can be high indeed. Friday morning four of us met to make a call. I was for postponing till Sunday afternoon, when the forecast was for sunny, dry, less windy, and not as cold. No no no, said two of my colleagues. They conjured up icy roads, icy sidewalks, people getting hurt. They were adamant. Reluctantly I went along. We cancelled the march.
Saturday morning I woke up to the expected cold and wind, but it was sunny and there was no sign of ice. I was bummed.
Later that morning I was at (via Zoom) the monthly meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP. Word had gone around that the march was off — but then a friend from the Racial Justice and Human Dignity committee of We Stand Together / Estamos Todos Juntos announced that some of them were going to march anyway. It seemed that the little daughter of two members had been eagerly looking forward to the event and was crushed that it had been cancelled. So they were going to march anyway. I’m in, I said.
Have faith. Keep going!
Between the end of the NAACP meeting at noon and the scheduled start of the march at 1, there wasn’t much time to spread the word and make a sign, but I did what I could. We met at the Tisbury Marketplace and a valiant band of about 15 marched to the bridge and back; the four-going-on-five-year-old who had spurred us on made it the whole way. I probably wasn’t the only one thinking “And a little child shall lead them”! She’ll probably remember the event when most of the rest of us, or at least our memories, are long gone.
This afternoon the M.V. branch of the NAACP held its annual MLK Day membership meeting. In pre-Covid times (remember those?) this was a luncheon, most recently at the PA Club in Oak Bluffs. The guest speaker was James Jette, superintendent of the Milton Public Schools, who did some of his growing up here on Martha’s Vineyard and is connected to the Chappaquiddick Wampanoag tribe.
All in all, the whole weekend was inspiring with a remarkably coherent message: Have faith. Keep going. I’m ready.