It is possible that Jews just like walking; but when it comes to freedom and justice, we seem to do a lot of it. For 40 years, we walked in the desert, fleeing oppression and seeking the freedom to be our own people in our own land. Over 3,000 years later, we took to our feet again.
In what the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called praying with his legs, the American Jewish community, along with so many others outraged by the gross injustices of segregation, organized, rallied, and marched alongside our black sisters and brothers stuck in their own wilderness, seeking freedom. In Selma, in Birmingham, all over the state of Mississippi through the March on Washington whose 50th anniversary we marked last week, Americans - Jewish, Christian, black, and white - marched for freedom.
The Jewish experience with oppression was a potent motivator in our community's engagement in the civil rights movement. A people, who year after year relive the Exodus from Egypt as though we were there, are in close relation to the struggles in America's segregated south. Enter one of the heroes and an unsung civil rights icon, Arnold Aronson.
Before he served as program director of the National Community Relations Advisory Council, now known as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, he was the sole employee at the Bureau of Jewish Employment Problems where he was tasked with identifying and ending the overt discrimination against Jews in the workforce. "Rather than attempting to deal with the problem as it affected Jews alone," said Representative Jim Clyburn in a 1997 tribute to Aronson on the floor of the House of Representatives, "he decided to attack employment discrimination per se, no matter the victim."
From this beginning, and inspired by his own Jewish experiences and values, Aronson became a leader in the civil rights movement, co-founded the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and was a key figure in organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. What Aronson knew though, and what he taught all of us, is that marches take time. And for a people who walked 40 years, the Jewish community knows that the march for jobs and freedom is ongoing.
In "After the March -- the Immediate Task" a memo written just two days after the historic event, Aronson wrote that organizers were back in meetings with the President and Congressional leaders. It was time to catalyze the "great and moving experience" into legislative and political change. And for that to happen, those who marched and stood, now "must sit down and write."
Fifty years later we are still marching. Though, thankfully, some of the most reprehensible of the tactics used by opponents of the freedom demanded by the marchers have changed, we still face many of the same underlying challenges today. When Aronson wrote his memo, he was working with the President on the necessary tools to "act against dogs and fire hoses." But that these measures are have grown rare, does not mean that we have extinguished injustice. No, the march is ongoing.
Last week, like my predecessor, I met with civil rights leaders at the White House. On our minds were Arnie's lessons. We must make systemic change. Now is the time to "sit down and write." The Voting Rights Act must be revisited and updated to ensure that every American citizen has the opportunity to cast a meaningful ballot. Our nation is about inclusion, engagement, and expansion of the franchise. It is core to our democracy and must be protected. Further, Congress also must pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, because while postings of "gentiles or whites need only apply" are thankfully a thing of the past, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans can still be fired simply for who they are. And finally, the march for civil rights cannot be considered done when 11 million aspiring Americans are relegated to the shadows or separated from their families thanks to our broken immigration system.
The success of civil rights marchers 50 years ago has made America a stronger and more equal country today. But equality means equal opportunity for all, and simply removing the immediate barriers is not enough. When a massive car accident is finally cleared, the traffic jam on the road often remains for hours. The defeat of most of institutionalized segregation means we must now deal with its equally strong but often less obvious lingering effects. And when the traffic is bad, sometimes the best thing to do is to get out and walk.