Although the African American community faces many challenges, such as gaining better access to healthcare and education, for Pastor B. Grady Scott of Grace Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Tucson, the number one issue is overrepresentation in jails and prisons.
Scott and former Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild presented “African American and Jewish Communities: Partners for a More Equitable Tucson” on Sunday, Jan. 10, speaking to more than 100 participants on Zoom. The presentation was sponsored by the social action and social justice committees of Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Or Chadash.
Jill Rich, Temple Emanu-El social action chair, introduced Rothschild by quoting from a speech he gave as part of his Stop the Hate program as mayor, in which he cited President Lyndon Johnson’s exhortation to turn away from “the apostles of bigotry and bitterness” and “those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.” Antidotes to that venom, Rothschild said, are communal action, commitment to the principles on which the United States was founded, voting and being informed, and “recognizing the humanity in each of us.”
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The goal, Rothschild told the Jan. 10 Zoom audience, “is to make race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, irrelevant — not neutral, not affirmative, but irrelevant.”
Rothschild provided a brief overview of African American-Jewish relations in the U.S. He started locally with the story of Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner, who led Temple Emanu-El from 1942-47 some years after serving in Selma, Alabama; started the Tucson Inter-Racial Council; and held several interdenominational services at Emanu-El’s Stone Avenue Temple with the nearby African Methodist Episcopal Church – a move not all his congregants at the time welcomed.
Backtracking to colonial times, Rothschild acknowledged there were some Jewish slave owners. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he said, during the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North, Jewish newspapers drew a parallel to the Jews escaping Egypt. He noted the high percentage of Jews, especially Jewish lawyers, involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but added that the times also encompassed racism by Jewish shopkeepers and landlords toward African Americans. Tensions remain, he says, around affirmative action, and racism on both sides.
Rothschild said his Stop the Hate campaign sought to address an increase in hate crimes in Tucson after the 2016 election. The campaign included outreach to victims, police education, and passing a new law regarding misdemeanor property crimes and threats.
Rothschild then turned the discussion over to Scott to focus on where things stand today.
Listening to each other’s stories
Beginning with the question of why we must still talk about racism in 2021, the pastor said that not so far in the past, the uncle for whom he is named was shot and killed for no crime other than sitting on a fence without permission. The murder was never prosecuted; it was “just another black man that was dead,” Scott said.
After decades of progress, we are seeing a rise of hatred toward African Americans and Jewish Americans, he said, pointing to the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Citing the issue of removing Confederate statues that sparked the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Scott pointed out that most of those statues were erected not in the years just after the Civil War, to honor dead soldiers, but in the civil rights era, to intimidate African Americans.
The former chairman of the National Baptist Convention USA, Incorporated, Prison Ministry and Criminal Justice Commission and a volunteer chaplain for the Pima County Adult Detention Center, Scott praised Rothschild for his Second Chance Tucson initiative, which provides employment opportunities for people overcoming a prior conviction.
“Over-incarceration is still an issue for the African American community,” he said. “With us being 3 or 4 percent of the population [of Tucson], there’s no reason we should be 10 or 12 percent of any of the incarcerated populations.”
The Tucson Police Department’s public safety dashboard, released in October, showed a disproportionate use of force involving African Americans, he said.
Along with over-representation in jails and prisons, Scott spoke of under-representation in education and access to healthcare, and noted that economic downturns such as the one brought on by the coronavirus pandemic affect the African American community harder than other ethnic groups.
America’s strength is its diversity, and working with other communities is key, he said. “When we have people who are willing to listen, who are willing to open up and say ‘I want to be part of the solution, and not a part of the problem,’ it’s exciting to see, because so often people turn a deaf ear to the people whose lives are not like theirs,” Scott said. “We have to learn to listen to each other’s stories, and not believe that we know what that person needs.”
He thanked the Or Chadash and Temple Emanu-El social action/justice committee for reaching out to the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The committee set up a subcommittee on racism that has met several times with leaders from the Tucson NAACP. “It’s a great way to show that we’re united in this fight.”
Scott called on the Jewish congregations to support the NAACP’s lobbying efforts to restore voting rights to convicted felons, pointing out that many of those convictions were for acts that are no longer considered crimes.
Working together will not change America and may not even change Arizona, “but we can change Tucson,” he said, while adding that he believes the riots on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., “highlighted a problem that the nation is getting ready to address.”
“If there was ever a time to be hopeful that change is on its way, I believe that time is now,” Scott said.