Justice for All: Report on PAS Civil Rights Journey to the South

By Linda Yarden

Justice for all must mean justice for each and every one.

Our Congregational Journey to the South was more than the sum of its concepts: human rights, civil rights, nonviolent protest, dignity, monuments, equality, the “other,” and the question “have we, as a country, come to terms with our past?” History came alive. It was yesterday; it is today.

Sixty-one warm and welcoming congregants – teens and adult learners – led by Rabbi Neil Zuckerman, Rabbi Charlie Savenor, Hallie Chandler, and Barry Frankel and myself as trip chairs, undertook this journey. The trip began even before our first morning minyan followed by a rousing Sunday worship service at Ebenezer Baptist “America’s Freedom” Church. It had begun with our extraordinary pre-travel discussions with Columbia History professor Dr. Eric Foner and former CNN News Reporter Deborah Feyerick. Once we traveled to the South, we traced the trail of the Freedom Riders through Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham on an action-packed journey to feel and experience the civil rights movement, the conflicts of Southern Jewry against the background of Leo Frank, and how they addressed “this is my local community” versus “this is my Jewish call to action,” the interference of the Northern “interlopers.” On the way, we gained a deeper understanding of seminal events in American history. For “as much as we thought we knew, we came away learning so, so much more.”

We heard from Reverend Natosha Reid Rice and Reverend Jasper Williams, from Jo Ann Bland, Martha Hawkins, and Bishop Calvin Woods – all participants in the struggle alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hearing their stories of courage and faith and hope, we began to appreciate the pain endured to secure basic rights we take for granted – the right to take any seat on a bus, to drink from a public drinking fountain, or to sit at a lunch counter and be served, and perhaps most importantly, the exercise of the right to vote. We shed tears as we felt what it meant to live absent dignity and equality.

We explored the National Center for Human and Civil Rights and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. Our teens were moved by the power of music as they sang “We Shall Overcome” in Freedom Park, right next to the memorial for the four young girls murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

We bonded as a community as we discussed the devastating after-effects of segregation. At the Equal Justice Initiative, we encountered the long line from lynchings to mass incarcerations as Alabama and our entire country continue to grapple with their past. We all were moved by our individual and collective ability to affect change. Seeing the AIDS quilt opened our eyes to contemporary civil and human rights issues, and increased our understanding of the ongoing impact of extreme income disparity and poverty.

We were inspired. We have only begun to understand the power of redemption and forgiveness and the need for an incontrovertible belief in a higher power. As we marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge we truly internalized what Rabbi Heschel meant when he said “When I marched in Selma, I felt my feet were praying.”