Justice is a Constant Struggle by Rabbi Judy Chessin
This spring, Temple Beth Or high school students embarked on our second Etgar 36 Civil Rights Journey into the Deep South with peers from Temple Israel and teenagers from Chicago’s Congregation Hakafah. This trip was generously subsidized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton’s Innovation grants and Temple Beth Or. Etgar 36 is an organization which sponsors educational civil rights excursions throughout the country. Our itinerary included many sites including the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute, Atlanta’s Aids Quilt Project, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
In each place, history came alive. But no exhibit could possibly convey the power that we felt upon meeting living sources … the inspirational witnesses who described their own personal plights and heroism during the 1960’s Civil Rights battles in our nation’s Deep South. In Selma Alabama, we met Joanne Bland, who spoke to us at the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. From this very spot, Joanne and her friends from SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee, headed out on their historic trek over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and on to Montgomery to demand voting rights which had heretofore been denied to African Americans. In Birmingham Alabama, we met Bishop Calvin Woods, Sr., an 84-year-old pastor who worked with Baptist Minister Fred Shuttlesworth, one of Birmingham’s most prominent civil rights activists, to organize non-violent Birmingham protests against racial segregation and injustice. Participating in these protests were hundreds of children, some as young as six years old. When the media picked up images of these children knocked unconscious by fire hoses and trampled and bitten by snarling dogs, many Americans were startled out of their apathy towards civil rights issues for the first time.
New for us this year was a visit to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace in Justice (in Montgomery Alabama). “The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” is built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned on their way to the slave market. It contains a poignant exhibit of nearly 300 jars of soil from American lynching sites. A few blocks away, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice features more than 800 steel monuments, one for each location where a racial terror lynching took place, inscribed with the names of victims. A monument park outside the structure holds a field of identical monuments to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent.
While we wish that racial hatred were a thing of the past, a mere history lesson, we are well aware that today we still have the KKK marching in our streets fomenting the very same hatred and intolerance of a half-century ago! I can only pray that our youth took to heart Joanne Bland’s stirring reminder: “You’re the ones who have to make this world better for your babies. No one else is going to do it for you! Will you promise me you’ll do it?” And they did.