This week, our Teen Program Coordinator, Talia Feldman, and I traveled with 17 of our teenagers from Congregation Beth El to Georgia and Alabama, to partner with Etgar36 and introduce our teens to the history of the Civil Rights Movement and our biblical obligation to pursue justice.
Our first stop in Montgomery was at the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum and Peace and Justice Memorial. The new museum introduced our teens to how racial injustice has always been part of this country’s complicated history, from slavery to mass incarceration. For example, even in NJ, the colony’s first constitution encouraged slavery, granting 75 acres of land for every enslaved person brought to NJ by white settlers. We witnessed the documentation of the expansion of the prison system in our country, part of the “war on drugs” which was launched by Nixon’s calls for law and order. Such calls were a response to the recently passed civil rights legislation, to rile up support from white supremacists. In 1971, there were 300,000 people incarcerated in this country. Today, there are 2.3 million, the majority of whom are people of color.
From 1882-1968, almost 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress. None were passed. At the Peace and Justice Memorial, we remembered the victims of over 4000 lynchings of black people by white mobs from 1865-1950. We mourned as well for the thousands of others murdered whose lynchings went undocumented. We concluded by gathering and saying the Mourner’s Kaddish, committed to holding up these sacred souls and telling their stories. May their memories be for a blessing.
We then spent the afternoon in Selma learning about the history of the Civil Rights Movement there with Joanne Bland. We began
in front of the Browns Chapel church, the launching point of all three attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery. Joanne was 11 years old when she marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge with Hosea Williams and John Lewis on Bloody Sunday. She told us about how she used to attend local SNCC meetings with her older sister and would march with them. By the time she was 11 years old, she had been arrested 13 times fighting for her rights. This hit me hard. My oldest daughter Cayla turned 11 a week ago. She had each of us pick up a rock from the gravel next to that church and reminded us that 56 years ago, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy and so many others stood on those very rocks as they prayed with their feet and marched for justice. She told us to hold on to those rocks, keep them in our pockets, to remind us that we must now be the change agents, the marchers, and the freedom fighters, to continue the work. For the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And it is all of our responsibilities to keep bending the arc.
Our teens spent the morning in Montgomery at the Rosa Parks Museum. In the Exodus narrative, there are leaders like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, but there are also the changemakers who make a difference in the everyday with the decisions they make, like the biblical midwives Shifra and Puah. That was Rosa Parks. She was the catalyst for this movement. It was Jo Ann Robinson who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but it was Rosa Parks’ single act, after a long day working as a seamstress above Heaven’s Depot, that led her to be a change maker, her everyday actions and decisions that would spark a movement. We too are now tasked to ask ourselves how our everyday actions could make a difference as well.
We spent the afternoon in Birmingham. We gathered outside the 16th Street Baptist Church and reflected on the bombing there on September 15, 1963, on a Sunday morning during services when four members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robinson, and Carol Denise McNair. They were only kids, barely teenagers, the same age as so many on our trip.
Across the street from the Church, sitting in Freedom Park, we met Bishop Calvin Woods.
Bishop Woods is one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and a co-founder of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. He spoke to our group about the importance of song. Just as Moses and Miriam sang a song of freedom as they crossed the split sea, and Moses sang to the Israelites to teach them the ethics and values he wanted them to hold on to, Reverend Woods spoke about the role that singing played in the Civil Rights Movement and asked us to sing with him. When we sang together, we prayed that the melodies of our songs carried to the Heavens and committed to keep singing the songs that he and so many others sang in the fight for justice, and promised to keep fighting that same fight.
We started off the day in downtown Atlanta, in the historic Auburn Ave. district. We visited Ebenezer Baptist Chuch, the spiritual home of Dr. King, and the new building, where Senator Raphael Warnock is pastor. Walking those blocks around the church, we stopped in front of Dr. King’s childhood home and explored his vision for a Beloved Community. Once a community that celebrated black-owned businesses and wealth, the community has struggled since the construction of I-85, purposely built right through the neighborhood. After, we walked slowly to the tomb of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King, and learned about the movement of non-violence. Standing in front of the eternal flame, like a Yizkor candle that constantly burns, we made a commitment to be like that fire, and spread Dr. King’s message. We concluded our morning in front of those tombs by chanting the El Maleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer. In the El Maleh Rachamim, we commit to upholding the ideals, ethics, and values that those we remember hold dear. Doing so, ensure that their souls are bound up in the bond of life. Our commitment to a movement of non-violence to building a more just society is how we ensure that Dr. King’s and Coretta Scott King’s souls are bound up in all of our lives.
Our afternoonbegan with a conversation with Julie Rhode, one of the founders of the AIDS Quilt Project, which used to be based out of Atlanta. We gathered to discuss the importance of current civil rights struggles, including that of the LGBTQ community, and how you launch campaigns to gain intention. She spoke with our teens about how to design Intentional ways we remember and tell our stories. She brought a portion of the quilt to share is. We spoke about the Jewish custom of naming after someone, the idea of caring on their legacy. When we learn someone’s story, we then become the storytellers, the ones with the responsibility to carry on their legacies. We concluded our trip with an advocacy workshop with the Center for Civil and Human Rights. They helped our teens to think through how to plan and implement their own campaigns to build a more just society. Groups have already begun working on their campaigns on issues including climate change, accessibility to nutritious and affordable food, and equitable pay for food service industry workers. I look forward to seeing them put these campaigns into action!
We concluded our journey by saying Kaddish D’Rabbanan. We are taught to recite these words when we have learned something new. In saying these words, we bless our teachers and those who taught us on our journey, but we also bless the students and the students of students. We declare that as students, learning from this experience, we have now become teachers and it is our responsibility to share what we learned with others. For justice, justice, we shall continue to pursue.