Charlestonian Lee Pringle has a vision to highlight the suffering experienced by two groups who he says have been subjected to oppression and prejudice and continue experiencing injustice.
What better way to highlight those similarities than through the universal language of music, said Pringle.
The founder and president of the Charleston Gospel Choir plans to showcase the issue through music in an upcoming show featuring the choir and the Charleston Spiritual Ensemble on Feb. 28 called “Jews and Blacks: Parallels of Our Past.”
“It’s a history-telling concert,” he said.
Shortly following the church shooting at Emanuel AME Church that left nine people dead in Charleston, Pringle reflected on the violence seen globally that year, which also included the killing of four Jewish individuals at a grocery store in Paris, France, in January 2015.
He thought it couldn’t be a more relevant time to highlight the shared suffering experienced by both groups.
“They are still seen in different views and for whatever reason have caught hatred. It’s sad, but it is a world problem and everyone should be aware of it,” he said. “We have a responsibility to be reminded of the history of the world and how these two groups have been targeted by bigots and those ignorant,” he said.
Pringle’s connection to the Jewish community is deeply rooted in his own family history. His parents, who are both black and part of a migration out of the South during the Jim Crow era, left Berkeley County for New York in the mid-1960s. The couple worked for Jewish business owners who treated his parents with dignity and respect.
“The manner in which Jews treated our family was never forgotten,” he said.
They moved back to South Carolina where Pringle later joined the African-American Jewish Connection (AAJC), which was among the first organized groups to call for the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State House in 1991.
“It’s a very unique history and existence because we are still looked upon as a segment of our society as people who are not worth living,” he said. “We don’t even matter.”
Eileen Chepenik, who is on the board of the Charleston Jewish Federation and chair of the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust, was thrilled to hear about Pringle’s endeavor to showcase the issue in a concert.
“I think the most important thing the concert can do through music and song is to be a voice for peace and harmony, show that people can resolve their difference and do away with hate and prejudice and that the two communities can do it together and should lead the way,” she said.
Chepenik says there’s always been a strong affinity between blacks and Jews, even before the civil rights movement.
“Both communities were slaves, both communities celebrate their freedoms and both communities have been persecuted throughout the ages,” she said.
Music Director David A. Richardson will lead the musical groups in a tribute to the history of black and Jewish encounters in America over the past five decades, in particular the role of the organized Jewish community in the civil rights movement and their alliance in the battle for civil rights.
This communal relationship supported both black and Jewish agendas to combat hatred and discrimination through social action and make common cause toward greater rights for all minorities, according to Pringle.
The concert will feature spirituals, which are songs that were created by African slaves in the United States and describe the hardships of slavery.
Shirley Greene, a singer of the Charleston Spiritual Ensemble, says the spirituals are especially moving.
“One of the song lyrics says ‘Took all my children, I wish I’d never been born. There’s no freedom here,’ ” said Greene. “It brings tears to your eyes hearing what she went through during slavery.”
The messages from those spirituals transcend race and religion and are relative to both blacks and Jews, who have felt persecuted for their existence, according to Pringle.
“Singing is so universal, it brings people together,” said Greene.
The performance’s selections will be accompanied by historical footnotes from Dr. Karen Chandler of the College of Charleston.
A free symposium featuring Charleston-area Jewish and black leaders will take place the Wednesday before the performance.
Pringle hopes the performance and symposium will spark the audience to reflect on history and a segment of our society that’s struggled to move forward through stereotypes and discrimination.
“If there is nothing else I want to come out of it, I want them to leave the performance realizing that when you hear bigotry, it’s your responsibility to say you don’t appreciate it and not to repeat it,” he said. “People don’t get hatred through osmosis. They are taught hatred and it comes from people not speaking up.”