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The March Continues: Our Civil Rights Journey (December 2018)

A few nights ago my family and I returned from a memorable and transformative trip to Atlanta and Alabama. We visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center in Atlanta, and historic sites from the civil rights struggle of the 1950’s and 1960’s in Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. We stood outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which was bombed by the KKK in 1963, killing four young girls. We experienced the Equal Justice Museum and Memorial (commonly referred to as the “Lynching Museum”). We got a personalized tour of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) from Joseph Levin, Jr., one of the co-founders of the Center, and while there met his other co-founder, Morris Dees, and the CEO of the Center, Richard Cohen. My one regret from the trip is that I didn’t get a picture with them, as they are the stewards of one of the premiere organizations in our country working for justice and dignity for the victims of the systemic racism that continues to permeate our society, especially in the South.

We spent Monday morning in Selma with Joanne Bland, who, as an eight-year-old, experienced the violence against the demonstrators who were attacked by police and white supremacists as they set out on the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to protest for the right to vote in Montgomery, the state capital. A Selma native, Joanne showed us around her hometown and told stories of the prejudice and racism that she witnessed and experienced. She is truly one of the most memorable and inspiring people I have ever met. (In the picture with me: our sons Barak and Nadav, Joanne, my wife Carol and our soon-to-be daughter-in-law Molly). Before we left Selma we crossed the Pettus Bridge, a short walk we will never forget.

This was not an easy trip—it was very intense and emotionally jarring. We learned and heard about discrimination, racism, victimization and dehumanization. We heard about bus boycotts, violence against protesters seeking basic human and civil rights and the right to vote, bombings of churches and civil rights organizations such as the SPLC, lynching and senseless murders of people because of the color of their skin and/or for their challenging injustice. We stood in places where slaves were warehoused and auctioned off. Much of this we knew already, but to be where this all happened, and to hear directly from people like Joanne who have experienced these things themselves, took our awareness and our consciousness of these events and their implications to a new level.

On Sunday at the MLK Center we ran into a group from three Boston-area synagogues, and Carol and I knew some of them. We were just starting our journey, while they were coming to the end of theirs. It was no surprise to see them there, as it has become commonplace for Jewish organizations to sponsor such civil rights journeys, reinforcing the historic bonds between Jews and African Americans, and strengthening the Jewish commitment to social justice and equality for all. Emblematic of that partnership is the iconic photo of Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel with other civil rights leaders on the Selma to Montgomery march. Some of you know that the Worcester Black-Jewish Alliance (WBJA) with which I am involved tried to organize a teen civil rights journey, which we had to postpone due to a lack of registration. I am more than ever committed to making it happen after this experience, perhaps for adults as well as teens in our community. More to follow on this score.

I want to give a “shout-out” to Billy Planer, an old friend who is the founding director of Etgar 36, an Atlanta-based organization that runs journeys similar to ours. Our itinerary was based on information provided by Billy, and in the weeks leading up to our trip Carol and I harassed Billy multiple times with questions. He gave generously and graciously of his time and expertise. The synagogue group from Boston that we met was there through Etgar 36, as is the WBJA trip.

There is much more. I hope to have an opportunity to share some of the stories and experiences from our journey with you in the near future. For now I will close with this. “The March Continues” is a refrain of the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is a reference to the Selma to Montgomery march, and a reminder that while much progress has been made in the American struggle for justice and equality, there is still much work to be done. As Rabbi Tarfon reminds us in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), a tractate in the Mishnah, “we are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it."

Sat, March 23 2019 16 Adar II 5779