Mount Zion’s Trip to the Civil Rights South
By Rachel Stock Spilker, Cantor
The whole world is a narrow bridge,
the important thing is not to be afraid.
—Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
In mid-March a group of nearly 30 Mount Zion members, along with some of their friends and family, traveled to Atlanta, Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery on a deeply meaningful and transformative tour. We were led by a talented guide from Etgar 36, an educational tour company that takes participants on a journey through the history of the Civil Rights Movement by visiting sites, hearing stories, and meeting people who were active in the Movement.
In Montgomery, we visited the Rosa Parks Museum and stood in the spot where the Civil Rights Movement began. The Equal Justice Initiatives Legacy Museum brought us through the history of racial oppression in America, from slavery to mass incarceration. At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Memorial, we walked through a striking and painful architectural reminder of the more than 4,000 lynchings that took place in the United States between 1877 and 1950, including one in Duluth.
On Shabbat evening, we joined in a service at Reform congregation Temple Beth Ohr in Montgomery, and on Shabbat morning we filled an otherwise empty Selma synagogue with the sounds of a creative, social justice-oriented service. There we learned the history of the synagogue from one of its four remaining members.
Perhaps one of the most memorable parts of the tour was meeting JoAnn Bland, who grew up near Brown Chapel where the famous voting rights march started, and was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement for most of her life. She was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday and endured multiple stints in jail as a child. Ms. Bland continues to be an outspoken social activist to this day, making important statements on how we are still fighting for equal rights in our country. She told our group, “It’s not ‘Black Lives Matter,’ rather, ‘Black Lives Should Matter.’”
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute gave us a good overview of the Civil Rights movement, which was all brought to life when we met Bishop Calvin Wallace Woods Sr. He worked alongside Martin Luther King and was beaten, arrested, and convicted for participating in boycotts against segregation. He ended his talk by getting us to join his rousing rendition of the Pete Seeger song, “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.”
One of the main takeaways from our tour was the emphasis on the continued fight for equal rights in the United States. Seeing the AIDS Quilt in Atlanta brought this message home. We heard about the politics of the early days of raising awareness about AIDS and fighting for the rights of the people who were dying of the illness.
Our few days in the South were packed with information and emotion. This history is painful to confront, and it hurts to know that, while we have made strides, we are far from being a country free from oppression and inequality. With the heaviness of all we had taken in in such a short time, I can’t think of any better way to end our trip than the way we did – we went to the Sunday morning service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the only church where Martin Luther King served as a full-time minister. The service was uplifting and joyful, replete with a 50+ person choir, trumpeters, a hand bell choir, a drummer, dance ministers waving colorful banners. People dressed in beautiful suits and women with elegant hats joyfully walked all around the sanctuary to shake hands with congregants and guests. As it was the church’s 133rd anniversary, the minister asked all who had been members for over 50 years to stand. I couldn’t help but imagine that these were the freedom riders, the marchers, and the demonstrators who fought peacefully, but fervently for their basic civil rights. They were history-makers, and their past infused their prayers. And it was inspiring.
Here is a short (by no means comprehensive) list of resources and ways to learn more about and advocate for racial justice.
Read and watch
- “Just Mercy” – Bryan Stevenson. He is the Founder and Director of the Equal Justice Initiative
- “March” – A 3 book graphic novel series by Congressman John Lewis about the Selma March
- ” Why We Can’t Wait” – Dr. ML King Jr.
Movies and Documentaries
- “The Long Walk Home”
- “Eyes on the Prize”
Visit the Religious Action Center’s website to learn about issues and actions surrounding racial justice https://rac.org/racial-justice.
Sign up for the mailing list for and consider donating to The Southern Poverty Law Center https://www.splcenter.org/.
Take a trip to Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham!