Temple Adas Shalom and St. James AME Church in Havre de Grace joined together last weekend to unveil and dedicate a mosaic the two congregations created in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The mosaic represents a quote from the Book of Amos to which King frequently referred.
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” the quote says.
Adas Shalom Rabbi Gila Ruskin said that she always partners with an African-American church wherever she lives. In Havre de Grace, that partnership has been St. James and its reverend, Baron Young. She said her time, as a religion teacher, at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore City was the impetus for this commitment.
“[It was by] spending time with African-American teenagers who live in Baltimore City and really want to get an education and have a productive life,” said Ruskin. “Despite all of the adversity they face, I learned so much from them about what it’s like to be a young African-American in today’s world.”
The dedication ceremony had three speakers, and following the mosaic’s unveiling, the congregations joined together to help make blankets for the homeless of Harford County. The first speaker was Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of Howard County’s Beth Shalom.
When I say, ‘Forward together,’ you say, ‘Not one step back.’
— Keshia Thomas
Plotkin focused on his experiences participating in the 2015 Journey for Justice Walk from Alabama to Washington.
“At the front of the line, not just that day, but every day was a man named Middle Passage,” said Plotkin. Although Plotkin didn’t speak with Passage directly, he heard his story through colleagues. “He was an older gentleman who had taken his name to honor the way his ancestors came to America.”
Plotkin explained that many of his own ancestors came to the United States on a boat, eager and excited to see the Statue of Liberty. However, many of Passage’s ancestors came against their will on the “Middle Passage” route across the Atlantic Ocean that brought slaves from Africa.
To Plotkin’s — and many others’ — disbelief, the unthinkable happened during the march.
“The line stopped suddenly. I saw from about halfway back a man fall, and it was Middle Passage,” said Plotkin. “Initially we thought, perhaps hoped, that he got tired and tripped, but it very quickly became apparent that this was not the case.”
The buses took the marchers back to their home base, where Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP who marched next to Passage and accompanied him to the hospital, delivered the news. Passage had died.
For his participation in the march, the Union for Reform Judaism honored Plotkin, as well as each of his rabbinical colleagues, with a Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award. The award is named after a rabbi who advanced the cause of social justice through the creation of the Religious Action Center in Washington.
During his presentation, Plotkin removed the award from its packaging to show the crowd. He began to introduce the next speaker, Keshia Thomas, but not before making a special announcement.
“To recognize what you have brought to this community, to myself and to communities around the country and to this cause you so passionately support,” said Plotkin, “I present you with this plaque.”
Thomas also walked in the 2015 Journey for Justice but said she’s been an activist since childhood. She staged a walkout at her school after Rodney King’s brutal 1991 arrest in Los Angeles and mentioned how difficult it was to explain her actions to her parents.
After being introduced, Thomas began her speech by teaching the crowd one of the many chants she has learned.
“When I say, ‘Forward together,’ you say, ‘Not one step back,’” said Thomas.
Throughout her speech, Thomas intermittently chanted “Forward together,” and the audience responded, “Not one step back.” Thomas, who has received several awards from different organizations and universities for advocacy for racial equality, shared the story that brought her into the public eye in 1996. It began when she heard that the Ku Klux Klan was planning to rally in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“The Ku Klux Klan was coming to Ann Arbor to spread hate. I had to stand up to say, ‘No, not today and not in my town,” said Thomas.
When Thomas arrived at the rally, she noticed someone on a bullhorn. Without warning, that person changed the crowd’s demeanor for the worse.
“All of a sudden, [the person on the bullhorn] said, “There’s a Klansman in the crowd. Get him,’” said Thomas. The crowd fell silent and turned to a white man wearing a black vest with a Confederate flag. He had an SS tattoo.
Thomas’ first reaction was to confront him. But after seeing the man get struck in the head with a sign, Thomas acted. A now-famous photo of the incident, taken by Mark Brunner, shows Thomas protecting the man while yelling at protestors to stop. Ultimately, police arrived on the scene, escorted the man away and arrested several protestors who had become violent.
Media outlets later confirmed that he was not a Klansman.
Although Thomas’ actions were well publicized at the time, she shared the next, lesser-heard part of her story with the audience. A few weeks after the incident, she was sitting in a coffee shop when a white teenage boy approached her and said, “Thanks.” Confused, Thomas asked what he was thanking her for.
The teenager was the son of the man who Thomas protected.
The final speaker of the evening was local attorney Philip Hunter, who participated in all three Selma, Ala., marches as a teenager. As a result, he was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Barack Obama along with other members of the original marches.
Hunter recalled that his father was an active member in the NAACP when “it was not popular to be a part of a subversive group.”
Hunter’s father and seven other men were nicknamed the “Courageous Eight” because they petitioned the superintendent of schools to integrate; this was before Brown v. Board of Education. Many people lost their jobs as a result of signing that petition. Hunter’s father and seven other men refused to remove their names.
Hunter explained that during one of the marches, the group knew authorities were waiting for them. Being athletic, he thought he could outrun the tear gas. He was wrong and faced the same brutality that many others of the time experienced.
Throughout his speech, Hunter repeated one of King’s famous quotes several times.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” said Hunter
He repeated, “Where do you stand in times of challenge and controversy?”