On Thursday April 4, 1968, an escaped convict who called himself Eric Galt, loaded a Remington Model 760 Gamemaster with a single .30-06 round. Galt crawled into a dirty claw-footed bathtub and while pointing the rifle at the Lorraine Motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee where the Reverend Martin Luther King was staying. Inspired by the teachings of the segregationist George Wallace, Galt had been stalking Reverend King for weeks if not months. In the words of author Hampton Sides in his book Hellhound on His Trail, "at 6:01 p.m., he wrapped his index finger around the cool metal trigger." The single shot entered through King's right cheek and severed his jugular vein. King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital. King was just 39 years old.
It took an extensive manhunt of three months to catch Galt who went by various aliases including Harvey Lawmeyer and Ramon George Sneyd, but Galt is most well known by the name James Earl Ray.
I was thinking about this when the news broke with the tragedy of Charleston, South Carolina. I have had the pleasure of visiting this beautiful and historic city which is also home to one of our country's oldest Jewish congregations Kahal Kodesh Beth Elohim, which was founded in 1749. Charleston is a scenic town, and it is especially popular with tourists. People in Charleston are deeply religious and welcoming, which makes the news even more heartbreaking. On Wednesday night a man walked into the Emanuel AME Church during one of its regular Bible Studies and slaughtered 9 people including the church's Reverend, Clementa Pickney.
In the words of Charles Pierce in his essay Speaking the Unspeakable, "What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it's not is "unthinkable." Somebody thought long and hard about it. Somebody thought to load the weapon. Somebody thought to pick the church. Somebody thought to sit, quietly, through some of Wednesday night bible study. Somebody thought to stand up and open fire, killing nine people, including the pastor. Somebody reportedly thought to leave one woman alive so she could tell his story to the world. Somebody thought enough to flee. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unthinkable is not one of them."
We now know the name of the suspect, Dylann Roof, who was apprehended by authorities in Shelby, North Carolina. Thankfully it did not take three months to catch the alleged perpetrator, but the agony, pain and grief is just as deep.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the grieving family and friends of those murder victims. Our thoughts and prayers are with the city of Charleston and the state of South Carolina. Our thoughts and prayers are with the whole country as we continue to grapple with the embedded hate that surfaces from time to time in such horrific ways.
Let's be clear, though this may have been the action of a single deranged individual, until we as a society get to the heart of the continued hate that plagues us through the constant blaming of the "other" be they black, white, Hispanic, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Arab, or so many other types; we will continue to have our hearts broken and our anguish poor forth like a great flood.
May their memories all be for an abiding blessing. And may the hate in the hearts of too many one day leave their souls, so we can all live in peace.
Parashat Mishpatim: Radical Empathy
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