Yesterday, Sue C and I attended the interfaith, interracial celebration of Dr. King at Stone Temple Baptist Church in North Lawndale. The program was cosponsored by the church, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the JUF, and the North Lawndale Historical & Cultural Society.

It was marvelous setting, as the church’s home is a grand, former Romanian synagogue. Speaker after speaker spoke of a warm and constructive collaboration between the black and Jewish communities in the past and present – a partnership especially important right now given our society and an administration that tolerates, if not encourages, expressions of hatred towards blacks and Jews (and others).

Note was made of those challenges, but they were not the central focus of the day.

Senator Dick Durbin spoke briefly before needing to return to Washington for “jury duty.” Able to speak at more length were Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Judge Timothy C. Evans, Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County. Judge Evans grew up in Hot Springs, AK at the height of the civil rights movement’s work; Ms. Foxx grew up in Cabrini Green housing. As she pointed out, to celebrate the two of them and their accomplishments is to ignore the fact that successes like theirs ought not be the exceptions; the exceptions should be the African Americans who “don’t make it.”

Dr King – Less Loved Then Than Today

We were reminded of the fact that, at his death, Dr. King was highly unpopular. Even the African American community was split over his choice of non-violent demonstrations – some criticized him for being too aggressive and others for not utilizing violence.

Dr. King was a radical – much of his message would still be radical today. Radical means to go to the root and Dr. King was a radical for justice. He identified it everywhere that he saw it. We associate him with the fight against racism. But we forget that he spoke against economic injustice as well, seeing the two as inseparable. He spoke against the war in Vietnam. He criticized the Soviet government over its treatment of Jews.

And today? He would speak against racism and economic injustice. He would speak against injustice in access to health care, to decent food, to a good education. He would speak against the injustices of the justice system. He would criticize the lack of equal opportunity. He would lament the fact that so many African American children experience trauma in their neighborhoods and that there is so little access to treatment for that trauma (ask Rachel, who sees children in those circumstances).

Restorative Justice

Ms. Foxx and Judge Evans’ chief focus was on things going right. They addressed the day’s topic, restorative justice, explaining its philosophy and implementation in Chicago.

In a nutshell – and I hope to bring a guest to teach us more about this – restorative justice begins with the goal of healing rather than punishing. While some are interested in revenge and punishment, restorative justice focuses on fixing the problem. Rather than throwing young men in jail for committing a crime and having them become better criminals, RJ is designed to keep them out of jail and to guide them towards reforming themselves.

That healing assumes that all people make mistakes. It includes the victim, the wrongdoer and the community. Rather than identifying a perpetrator solely by his/her offense, this method looks at each individual as a whole person – his/her history, present and potential future – and the impact of his/her wrongdoing on the entire community as well as the individual victim. It recognizes that full cognitive-moral development doesn’t occur until one’s mid-late twenties.

In place of a courtroom, restorative justice brings together the perpetrator, his/her victim(s) and members of the community in a literal circle for dialogue. The wrongdoer must listen to the victim explain the effects of the incident on his/her life. The community adds its input as well. Ultimately, the wrongdoer must restore what the victim has lost and engage in service to the community. Thus, the perpetrator of the crime is engaged in the act of restoration and is, in fact, restored.

We learned of other successes, too: for example, bail reform, which has removed from incarceration thousands of people not yet tried for non-violent crimes. Likewise, we were introduced to an organization UCAN, whose vision is that “Youth who have suffered trauma can become our future leaders” and whose mission begins with “UCAN strives to build strong youth and families through compassionate healing, education and empowerment.”

As you can see, it was a morning filled with learning and inspiration. I hope you’ll join me next year.

Two Final Thoughts

We were reminded of one of Dr. King’s oft-quoted statements: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

There is no remaining neutral on the issue of racism and injustice. If you do not speak against them in your own circles you contribute to their perpetuation. It’s as simple as that. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a close friend of Dr. King’s said, “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”

Finally, throughout the program I found myself asking the question: “If I had been born in North Lawndale, can I say that I would be today the person that I am?”

And my answer, without doubt, is no.