The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project works with law students, building an archive of the murders of African Americans in the Jim Crow South from 1930 to 1970. We gather the documents, case by case; each case telling a story of violence and impunity that is nowhere to be found in our history books. We then work with the families of the victims to seek acts of restorative justice in the communities where these murders occurred. CRRJ has helped families put up markers, have streets renamed at the site of the killings, consecrate gravestones over unmarked burial sites. We have held public ceremonies with police chiefs and mayors apologizing to the family survivors or descendants for the acts of their predecessors. We have provided the documents for historical exhibits in town halls and libraries. But most of all, we are building an archive so that a new, fuller account of these painful truths can be forever sealed into the telling of American history.
Every day I’m guided in this restorative justice work by the themes, metaphors and images of the Jewish season of repentance. Take cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. Our archive is a balance sheet detailing the crimes and our impunity; each case, a liability and a debt owed. There cannot be a reconciliation without recognition and acknowledgement of the total amount of what our society owes, how we have profited from the harms inflicted on others, and how our assets have roots in injustice.
Or take the image of teshuvah, the turning we are asked to do to face our fellow human beings to ask for forgiveness during the Days of Awe, and of God on Yom Kippur. Forgiveness is not a given; it is in the hands of those who have been harmed. But it is in our power to ask to be forgiven. Our tradition tells us that forgiveness does not come unless we make the first move to ask.
What does it take to turn towards those whom we have harmed? To repent as a community for our history of racial murders, we have to take a hard stop, raise our eyes to see where we as a nation have been and what has been done, decide to move towards a different way of behaving, and then act to live up to our vow. Repentance is a process that culminates in the movement of turning.
Our prayers, with the multiplicity of confessions in repeated acrostics from aleph to taf, [from a to z] all in the first person plural, help us understand that we all share in the responsibility to make things right in the public sphere. To ask for forgiveness, we have to first say out loud what wrongs we have committed. Not just keep them in our thoughts, but proclaim them in a space where others hear our confession, and we acknowledge our collective responsibility for repair.
A family member of one of the murdered once told us: “We’ve been waiting for your call for 70 years.” If forgiveness is ever to come, it has to start somewhere, and our liturgy teaches us that it must start with us. We have to make the call.
Rose Zoltek-Jick teaches at Northeastern University School of Law, where she is also the Associate Director of the Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Project.