On the Shabbat before Martin Luther King Day, you may wish to sermonize on Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. The Parsha for that weekend is Parshat Shemot, the first chapters of the book of Exodus. Here are some notes and ideas for sermons.
Discuss the history of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement. For example, many Jewish Americans went to Mississippi in 1964 to fight for civil rights in what became known as the “Freedom Summer.” Others helped register African American voters in various southern states. In June 1964, two Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered with one African-American, James Chaney, after entering Mississippi to register black voters.
Much of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act were written in the building that is home to the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, which has long been a hub of civil rights activity. Several early presidents of the NAACP were Jews, including Kivie Kaplan, a former Honorary Vice-Chair of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism). Currently, Rabbi David Saperstein, the RAC’s Director, is the sole white member of the National Board of the NAACP.
Civil Rights and the fight for equality remain an important issue in the United States today. During recent election seasons, we continue to see efforts to disenfranchise groups of voters. For example, in 2004 many voting precincts in low-income and minority areas of Ohio were suspiciously understaffed and had fewer voting machines than higher-income precincts. Long lines created frustrated voters who left the precinct before casting their vote. The same year in Florida, it was revealed that a list of supposedly ineligible voters included black, but not Hispanic voters, and that many of the people on the list actually should have been eligible to vote. Furthermore, former prisoners who have paid their debts to society are restricted from voting in many states, and the citizens of the District of Columbia remain formally disenfranchised by lack of voting representation in Congress. Additionally, members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community are deprived basic civil rights, such as protection from workplace discrimination.
Consider the parallels between the Israelite struggle for freedom and the struggle of African Americans. First, there are common elements of enslavement, the desire for liberty, the role and importance of leadership within the community, the tendency within the ruling class to resist the forces of social change, and the ultimate triumph of justice.
Pharaoh’s efforts to disempower the Hebrew population of Egypt and measures instituted by the ruling white class in pre and post-Reconstruction to diminish the South’s black population are similar. In Shemot, Exodus, Pharaoh places heavy burdens on Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel that included heavy taxes and the killing of newborn males, in addition to enslaving the Hebrews so that they could not use their numbers to overthrow the status quo. In the pre and post-Reconstruction South, whites enslaved Africans and then created “Jim Crow” measures aimed at keeping blacks out of mainstream society, such as grandfather clauses, segregated education, literacy tests (often with different standards for whites and blacks), and poll taxes.
There is also a direct parallel between Moses’ assertion of rights for the Israelites, and civil rights leaders’ assertion of rights for African Americans in the 1960s. Pharaoh responds to Moses by rebuking him and making life harder for the Jews by increasing their workload. Likewise, southern whites responded to black claims of equality by making their life more difficult and threatening and assaulting civil rights leaders with violence.