As in other cities in recent days, a Black Lives Matter mural was painted on a major street in uptown Charlotte. More than just simple letters spelling out the statement, the artwork looked colorful and interesting, and my partner suggested we go to check it out, which we did last weekend. We met a friend and walked silently looking at the mural plus the other art that popped up on boarded up windows lining the street. The art was beautiful, the message powerful and to me it felt like an experience of the sacred. I was feeling humbled and inspired when I stepped up onto the sidewalk and then had all of that emotion dashed.
Right there, just steps away from this mural attracting a diverse and respectful crowd to uptown still in the grip of a coronavirus epidemic was a monument to a "hero" of the Confederacy. To be fair, it's a non-descript, easy-to-miss granite marker that I had never noticed before. The side that faces the street is completely blank, but the text facing the sidewalk states it honors Judah Benjamin, who held the positions of Confederate Secretary of War, Secretary of State and Attorney General. Apparently, Benjamin hid out for 8 days in the Charlotte home of a local merchant as the Confederacy was defeated and crumbled. The marker stands at the former spot of that merchant's home, which is now just concrete and skyscrapers. Charlotte is known as the last home of the Confederate government, so the presence of this marker isn't really a surprise. Rather, what shocked me is that the marker was gifted to the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) by 2 local Charlotte synagogues. You see, Benjamin was Jewish--considered by some to hold the greatest political power of any Jew at that time--and the merchant who gave him sanctuary was also Jewish. That isn't surprising either, but I was heartbroken to learn these 2 temples had perpetuated the racist legacy of the Confederacy.
In short, yes, when the marker was dedicated in 1948, it was a "different time." That's code for racist, and it was perpetrated by one oppressed group (Jews) against another (African Americans). The irony here is painful on so many levels. Also, I know one of the temples to today be an outspoken and consistent supporter of social justice causes. Did they know about this marker? Surely they did. Were they doing anything about it? I had to know more--and I also wanted to deface it right then and there. I also knew the situation was complicated because of a 2015 law passed by the NC General Assembly forbidding the removal of any statues or monuments like this one on public property. However, some laws are unjust--like this one--and I think that when laws are unjust, spiritual people must take action to have them changed. So, what could I do?
I wrote a letter to the rabbis at both temples, explaining my emotion and experience at witnessing this juxtaposition of Black Lives Matter right next to a monument against those very lives. I suggested that even if the property was no longer theirs, then maybe they could at least speak out publicly about it. Maybe a statement like that could force the city's hand or the UDC to do something--if nothing else, at least the publicity would make things uncomfortable and might even inspire local citizens to take action of their own as has happened in other U.S. cities. And I'm ok with that.
I knew my letter wouldn't necessarily change anything, but I felt it was something I had to do. I had to speak out and encourage those 2 congregations to take some kind of action. I had to let them know that people were watching. Is Black Lives Matter more than just the latest trendy slogan? If I was watching, other people are, too. Fortuately, the rabbis responded right away and explained how the monument had long been a thorn in their side. There was controversy when it was first erected, and the temples had tried since then to have it removed. I was told they are now exploring options once again. They didn't say if they actually own it, but regardless, it appears they are speaking out.
I'm encouraged to get that response, but I have to say I wish there was more to it. The temples are trying to be cautious and not draw too much attention, and as Jewish people, I can understand why. However, sometimes being polite and careful gets you nothing. I don't wish anything bad on these communities, and I hope they are successful. But I also know the NC legislature is stubborn and made up of many racists.
One last note--part of me can understand the temples once wanting to honor an accomplished person like Judah Benjamin. However, his cause was unworthy. I have several Confederate soldiers in my family, but I do not need any statues or monuments to honor them. I cannot change who they were or what they did, but I do not and should not celebrate their "brave, courageous or patriotic" efforts to keep an entire race enslaved. On one level, I think their spirits are calling out to me to make a different choice, to speak out against their "Lost Cause." I am committed to doing what I can. I wrote this letter. I've given money to help remove a Confederate statue in Asheboro, NC, where 3 of my great-grandfathers enlisted. And next week, I plan to rally for taking down the Confederate statue in nearby Gastonia. No one is going to "forget" history if these monuments are removed. I believe we must carefully examine our hearts and souls about why anyone would support such racism and, frankly, treason. And if you consider yourself a spiritual person, this examination is even more crucial. Like it or not, we are still fighting the Civil War. Whose side are you on and why?