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Am Shalom's Civil Rights Journey

civilrights4Just a couple of weeks ago, 32 of us from Am Shalom traveled to Atlanta, Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery on a transformational journey led perfectly by Rabbi Steven Lowenstein and Cantor Andrea Rae Markowicz. We experienced not just the narratives of a history most of us had read about and some of us had lived firsthand, but also the soundtrack of a movement. From This Land is Your Land being sung by demonstrators in Atlanta's Hartsfield airport to If You Miss Me At the Back of the Bus to I Shall Not Be Moved to We Shall Overcome, we sang and sang and sang. We joined Bishop Calvin Wallace Woods, Sr. in song, an 83-year-old Civil Rights pioneer and pastor, as we chanted aloud in Freedom Park in view of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (where young girls Addie, Cynthia, Carole, and Carol were killed in the infamous bombing). We joined congregants in song during a Rise Up Sunday service in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. We sang If I Had A Hammer, and Hiney Mah Tov on our bus. We sang out the pain of memory and the joy of enlightenment.

In Montgomery, we learned about the Southern Poverty Law Center. We stood across the street around a water fountain memorial that commemorated 40 events reflective of the trials, struggles, murders, legal cases, and successes of a few decades of our Civil Rights history.  We grew silent as we heard of the open spaces the memorial’s architect purposely left vacant to house unknown future events that will need to be added…  We spent quality time at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative learning about how 25% of all people on Death Row live in Alabama, about their work on trying to improve prison conditions, about their efforts to exonerate wrongfully imprisoned Death Row inmates, about their work to change laws regarding the treatment of children who were being incarcerated in adult prisons, about their documentation of lynching in the south, and about their non-litigation work around issues of race and poverty.

civilrights11On the bus en route to the Rosa Parks Museum, we listened to Billie Holiday’s haunting Strange Fruit as we reflected and anticipated.  We learned the stories of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that went beyond the sound bytes many of us grew up reading about without truly understanding.

Welcomed warmly by Rabbi Elliot Stevens and by everyone at Congregation Beth Or, we sang, chanted, prayed, and learned together. We joined Cantor Andrea as she participated so beautifully in the congregation in which she had served years before as a student cantor. We shared dinner and stories as Rabbi Steve guided us through an inspiring evening. We embraced Shabbat as one community of friends.

The next day, we were on the road to Selma, now paved West 80, but just a dirt road during the time of the March. We quietly approached a place on the side of the highway.  We walked across the road to view Maya Lin’s 1991 memorial to Viola Liuzzo, the civil rights activist murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965 for simply driving a black man from Montgomery to Selma.  On the somber bus ride to Selma, we listened to Joan Baez’s One Tin Soldier, to John Legend and Common’s Glory, to a video interview with Representative John Lewis.  We listened.

We arrived at Selma’s Mishkan Synagogue, which had been the spiritual home of one of our fellow travelers.  We heard his personal memories of the joys and the struggles of growing up in the congregation, and in Selma, during the height of unrest.  We asked questions.  And we listened.  And we prayed.

civilrights6We met Jo Ann Bland and heard her testimony of growing up in Selma as a young girl baffled by not being legally permitted to sit at the lunch counter in her town and ultimately joining her grandmother in activism.  She marched for voting rights.  And she marched across the Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, on Turn-around Tuesday, and again two weeks later.  She shared details of her incarceration, of the beatings, of the terror.  And we all walked across the Pettus Bridge, imagining the horror and grateful to be together in those moments.

Ask any of us to tell you more.  Ask us to tell you about the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.  Ask us to tell you about Bishop Woods sharing the details behind why Birmingham, originally called “The Magic City” was then dubbed “The Tragic City” and “Bombingham.”  Ask us to tell you about the fire hoses, about the dogs, about the children, about the attention finally paid.  Ask us how it felt to hear him say, “We had the ingredient of prayer.  People would pray until they got happy.”  Ask us to tell you about our late-night ride back to Atlanta, each of us looking back and wondering.

Ask us about our last day in Atlanta, about viewing the reflecting pool and tombs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Coretta Scott King.  Ask us about sitting in the small Ebenezer Baptist Church hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in his own taped words.  Ask us about our participating with the gospel singers and musicians and preachers in a moving Sunday morning service at the larger across-the-street Ebenezer Baptist Church and about the sermon delivered by The Reverend Raphael G. Warnock, Ph.D.  And ask us about our stop at The Names Project, about the AIDS Quilt, about what we learned about civil rights and the politics, then and now, of AIDS in America.

civilrights8Ask us about this journey, and let us all be inspired to sing out, to shout out, to speak out with conviction and intentionality toward building a world of wholeness, compassion, and justice. And if you need a little lift, listen to 15-year-old Royce Mann sing out his poem just a few weeks ago at that same church in Atlanta. We are not in this alone.  

In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: 

            If you can’t fly, then run.

            If you can’t run, then walk.

            If you can’t walk, then crawl.

            But, whatever you do,

            You have to keep moving forward.


Contributed by Guest Blogger and Am Shalom Member, Kerry Leaf

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