Walking around Memphis, you hear songs in the background of restaurants and tourist shops. You can’t help it, but they seep into your head. So one bus ride I decided to download a song I had heard only a piece of: “Try a Little Tenderness” – specifically Otis Redding’s rendition. It starts slow; a soulful ballad of love. But as the tempo picks up, the seduction continues, ending with a frenzied, incomprehensible jumble of words belting out of Otis’ belly. The recording is mesmerizing. So mesmerizing, I listened to it four times in a row.
I didn’t know I loved soul music until the Steve's H.O.P.E Civil Rights Journey to the south. But my newfound love of the art is not only a result of exposure. It is the message quilted into the music; the fact that it is called “soul” music.
The museum where Stax records once was pays homage to soul music. It takes you on a journey of its birth in the 1950’s and 60’s. The tour begins by walking into an authentic, wooden chapel straight out of the Mississippi delta area. These wooden, one room chapels were the settings for the preaching and the gospel music that would inspire soul. The pews were hand-hewn by the congregants, you could see their dedication splintered into the wood. The message of this tiny room rang loud and clear: soul music is forged from the desire to take the deepest faith and the deepest spirituality of the human soul and let it breathe here on earth.
This is a desire that every human has, regardless of race or background, and it took hold of America during the Civil Rights Movement. The rock ‘n roll music we learned about carried this message. A plaque at Stax put it this way: “soul music evokes the bridge of mutually-shared experiences between blacks and whites.” That is the shared experiences of poverty, of love, of being chained down, of rising up to proclaim freedom, of knowing that every human is full of worth and deserving of basic, equal rights.
This is why a group of Jewish teenagers went to Memphis and Little Rock. Judaism is an epic narrative of struggle. It is also an eternal endeavor to witness the Divine here on earth. But we don’t wait for miracles. The Divine manifests when we, with our own hands, build bridges of shared faith and when our voices blend in harmony. We do this through understanding, through seeing where our histories collide and where they diverge. We did not sugarcoat Jewish involvement in Civil Rights, nor did we ignore it. Our teens learned that by finding that empathy – that common history and that common desire to do well by others - they could and should be partners in building a better future.
Dr. Scott Morris of the Church Health Center put it this way: “if your heart is like my heart, then give me your hand.” By bearing witness to another’s struggle and identifying it with your own, you’ve forged a bond of brotherhood.
You’ve gotta try a little tenderness. Otis may have been singing about a girl, but the sentiment ran much deeper. There is a tender part in each of our souls that responds to the needs of others. Our Jewish fa
ith, like soul music, is the
vehicle for tapping that compassion, seizing it, never leaving it. We felt it back then and we still fight for it now. Now each teen knows their place in the struggle. By hearing their words, perhaps you’ll find yours.
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