This month, we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a time when we recall the words and deeds of the great civil rights leader, and remind ourselves of his contributions to making America what it is today.
This is a proud moment for Jewish Americans, too. Many of our leaders contributed to King’s struggle.
When I see one of the more famous photos of King marching, I naturally look to his left to see Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Guided by the biblical principle, “Justice, Justice you shall pursue,” Heschel, one of the leading Jewish figures of his day, famously remarked that he was praying with his feet when he marched with his friend.
Things have improved immensely for African Americans since the turbulent 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark legislation aimed at treating all people decently.
A blow was struck against the separate drinking fountains and lunch counters of the Jim Crow Era, barriers to voter registration and discrimination in federal assistance programs.
However, to paraphrase Rev. Kevin Cosby, president of Simmons College, Louisville’s historically black institution of higher learning, treating people decently is not a substitute for treating them equally.
We still have a long way to go; the fight for civil rights is not over. African Americans are not treated equally, and the Jewish community must re-engage in their struggle.
The criminal justice system is a prime example of inequality. African Americans are victims of over-policing. They are far more likely to be stopped and arrested than whites. The percentage of the U.S. prison population that is African American is about 40 percent, (39 percent for whites) even though they constitute only 13 percent of the population. Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes affect the African American community more than any other.
This mass incarceration is huge financial drain on families and communities, resulting in loss of income, travel costs for prison visits and legal fees.
The cash bail system also disproportionately affects communities of color. African Americans charged with crimes are often enticed to plead guilty, regardless of guilt or innocence, because they cannot afford the bail or the loss of income that would result from months in jail awaiting trial.
What’s more, Kentucky is one of the few states where convicted offenders lose their rights to vote for good after their sentences are completed. By executive order, Gov. Andy Beshear has restored those rights to some of the 140,000 individuals who have lost them, but many more are still prevented from exercising their basic democratic right.
These laws and rules are effectively racist, even if that was not their original intent. They affect the black community more than any other.
Equal treatment for all Americans, constitute the civil rights issue of our time, and the Jewish community must rise to the occasion. Here’s how:
Support efforts to reform the criminal justice system by making it a voting priority when choosing a candidate.
Champion support for organizations in the black community, such as Simmons College, working to address some systemic problems.
Lobby your state lawmakers for voter restoration and against laws that will make it harder for the poorest, most vulnerable Kentuckians to vote.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon says, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.” We have a history of fighting for justice. Let us renew that fight until equality for all is not just an aspiration, but a reality.
(Matt Goldberg is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.)