A CIVIL RIGHTS JOURNEY: SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS IN HISTORY AND OUR HEARTS
A Personal Reflection by Addie Schneider
How can I describe a trip for which I have no words superlative enough? Life-changing... soul-inspiring... raw...
Almost 100 WRJ sisters from across the US - and Canada, counting WRJ President Sara Charney! - met at the Atlanta Airport Marriott on Wednesday, Oct. 19, for a Civil Rights Journey. What followed was a genuine journey into the truths we usually avoid, talking about life for Black people in America from their arrival in chains in the 1500s until today.
Our two buses and amazingly knowledgeable guides Billy Planer and Scott Fried, from Etgar 36, took us from the calm activity of writing postcards for Reclaim Our Vote to our first stop, at the gates of naked awareness: The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in Montgomery, AL. In words and in stark sculptures and black-and-white phots, we were brought face to face with the ugliness of slavery, the failure of well-meaning Reconstruction after the Civil War, the horrors of lynchings and Jim Crow laws. As I walked through the museum, reading about all of this, the words I recorded in my journal were: "painful, agonizing, shameful..." How could one group of people - "my" (read "white") people - do this to another??
The museum is part of the Equal Justice Initiative, founded in 1989 in Montgomery by Bryan Stevenson. The EJI provides legal representation and support for prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted, poor prisoners without proper representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial. Stevenson sheds light on the organization and its cause through TED talks, his memoir Just Mercy and the subsequent movie based on it, and any other means possible.
With barely time to catch our breaths from that, we went to eat the best fried chicken I've ever had (and I've eaten a lot of fried chicken!) at Martha's Place. After lunch, owner Martha Hawkins spoke to us about her background in poverty and mental illness, her salvation when she found God, and her belief that everyone needs and deserves second and sometimes third chances; she intentionally hires people who are in that place. Her fervent faith is a beacon to all: "It don't matte where you been...it matters where you want to go."
Next was a follow-up to the EJI, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice - also known as the Lynching Memorial. In this multi-part exhibit, both hanging and flat metal slabs record every county in every state where lynchings are recorded and researchable. (I asked why my own Cobb County, GA, notorious for its racism, had only one name and was told that apparently the other known thousands of lynchings are not recorded.) Plaques on the wall tell of "reasons" given for lynching a person: "threatening to report white men for whipping his Black neighbors," "drinking from a white man's well," "walking behind the wife of his white employer." Impossible to comprehend...
Our last stop in Montgomery was the Rosa Parks Museum. Rosa Parks, of course, was the Black woman who, on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her seat on the city bus for a white man to sit down, as required by municipal ordinance. That act led to the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which in turn was the spark for the entire civil rights movement in the South. [The boycott lasted over a year, until a Supreme Court ruling ordered the city to desegregate all buses.]
OY what a full, heavy, sorrowful day overall. We broke into groups for dinner at a variety of restaurants; and I hope at least some of those groups participated in as excited and stimulating discussion as mine over their meals. I doubt that anyone had much energy left to socialize once back at the hotel.
The next morning, bright and early, we boarded our buses for the ride to Selma. There we were inspired - and chastened! - by Joanne Bland, who at age 11 was the youngest marcher on Bloody Sunday and TurnAround Tuesday and the first leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. By that time she'd been arrested a documented 13 times! She remains, to this day, a strong figure in civil rights activism and is raising money to create a park and memorial on the spot in Selma where the marches truly began.
What next? The natural continuation: all of us walked two by two across the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge. Despite the bucolic waters flowing beneath the bridge, my mind echoed with the shouts and curses of the police and belligerents, the growling of the dogs, and the screams and cries of the marchers on those fateful days. I was almost surprised when I didn't see "Bull" Connor standing at the other end of the bridge when I crossed. Instead, there is a small park with plaques commemorating standout civil rights leaders of that day.
No, we didn't return on foot to Montgomery, retracing that 1965 march. Rather, our buses drove us to Birmingham. There, after lunch, we visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. An introductory film told the early history of the city from 1871 to 1921, including the ironic fact that, as the city grew because of the steel industry that developed there, Blacks and whites worked side by side in the mines and smelting factories but were separated by wide chasms in their social lives outside work. Truly Birmingham came to be known as the bloodiest site of racial fighting, much of it fomented by the KKK, first founded after the Civil War but breathing fire in Birmingham right up to the 1960s.
Friday night was a joyous celebration of Shabbat. We celebrated Simchat Torah - some of us for the second time! - and danced with the Torahs at Temple Emanu-El. Following services was a wonderful dinner sponsored by the Temple Emanu-El Sisterhood, catered by a member family who own a barbecue restaurant nearby. Lots of visiting and joking was enjoyed by all, along with a talk by Temple member Ellen Erdreich, who spoke about her father, a leading civil rights activist and labor lawyer during the Movement in Birmingham.
It was fitting that Saturday's journey began with a gospel hymn: "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine..." Arriving at Freedom Park, across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls died in a KKK bombing in 1963, we were met by Bishop Calvin Woods, who led us in the hymn and then the familiar call-and-response: "What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? NOW! And how much of it? ALL of it!"
Bishop Woods emphasized to us that from its start, the civil rights movement was a spiritual movement, headquartered at churches like the 16th Street Baptist all along the route, with no meeting ever happening without a minister "to lead us in the way of God." He spoke to us of faith - the movement's ("belief in the miracles of God"} and his own - and of activism and inspired us further to keep that faith and activism going.
We then wandered on our own through the park, viewing the statue of the four girls and another of snarling dogs held back by chains and yet another of children seen behind the bars of a jail. [Children played an oversized role in the movement, in main because the photos and TV footage of children being arrested and sprayed with hoses touched the hearts of adults who mattered.]
Back on the bus, then, for the ride to Atlanta, where our first stop was lunch. Afterward, we heard from Glenn Friedman, CFO of Fair Fight, the PAC for Fair Fight Action, the voting rights organization founded in 2018 by Stacey Abrams. He talked about FFA's activities in GA and across the country to fight voter suppression; then he discussed the current difficulties with that in GA: partisan redistricting, tightening of rules for absentee/mail-in ballots and drop boxes, outlawing of ballot "harvesting" and even of giving water to voters waiting in long lines. Glenn ended by sharing some astounding statistics: some 729,000 early voters in GA during the first week and a 126% increase in Black turnout over 2020!
Our evening was pure relaxation: a delicious dinner at a venue on the GA Tech campus, followed by a joyous concert by our resident musician Kyra Goldman and well-known singer/songwriter Beth Schafer. What better combo can there be?!
Did this amazing cake of a journey need icing? We got it Sunday morning, as we sat in the nave of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and watched Rev. and Senator Raphael Warnock walk in! He is, of course, the lead pastor of MLK's church; but in the midst of his rough campaign for reelection, no one knew if he'd be there.
The service itself began almost like a gospel concert, with great singing, both choral and solos. Then Rev. Warnock led the preliminary prayers - including bereavement and healing lists, just as we have in our services! - and then urged everyone to get out and vote (of course!) "I can't tell you who to vote for, but... Voting is a form of prayer!" Guest preacher was Rev. Otis Moss III, whose sermon seemed perfectly tailored to our own CRJ. Rev. Moss started by drawing the parallel between elephants, made docile by short chains and continuing that way even when the chains are removed, and generations of Blacks, growing up the same way, bound by the chains of poverty and horrendous conditions. In both cases, their power comes when they realize that without the chains they can take control of their own lives. He then moved to the Gospel of Mark to continue the theme of breaking free from chains that bind us and demons that possess us in our lives, to allow us to become ourselves.
Finally, to wrap our journey, we crossed the street to the gravesite of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and heard some summary words from Billy Planer. First was a challenge: we won the "access lottery" - so what will we do with that access? Our question, he said, should not be "what am I willing to die for?" but "what am I intending to live for and strive for?" Our daily mantra must be: "My life is better when everybody's life is better."
Our journey across two states and 60 years - not counting the ugly decades that came before the civil rights movement began - must be just the beginning. Now I and the 90+ women who took the journey with me are charged with finding the ways to make that mantra become reality.
PHOTOS, row by row, left to right:
Row 1 - Our SE District "girls," Beth Levin, Tampa; Amanda Moonitz, Tampa; Gayle Geagan, Odessa; Genia Neuhaus, Coral Gables; Addie Schneider, Marietta GA; Madelyn Davidson, Tampa. Explaining Rosa Parks's role, Montgomery AL.
Row 2 - A gut-wrenching metal sculpture at the Lynching Memorial, Montgomery. Genia with Joanne Bland, Selma. Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma.
Row 3 - 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham AL, where four little girls died. Bishop Woods, Birmingham. Metal sculpture of children seen behind the bars of the jail.
Row 4 - Old Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta. Tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Atlanta.