Civil Rights Journey

Civil Rights Journey

By: Rev. Marisa Brown Ludwig

Dear First Church Members and Friends,

Most of you know that I went on a Civil Rights journey this past April with five First Church members:  Marieke Burt, Dianne Doherty, Mary & Matt Friedman, and Anne Landry.  We traveled on a tour planned by Rabbi Mark Shapiro and led by Rabbi Devorah Jacobson with Jewish Community Center Exec. Dir. Michael Paysnick, and 26 more Jewish Community friends and neighbors. From April 7 – 12, 2019, we travelled to Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery retracing major places and events of the 1960’s Civil Rights era in our country.

The trip combined standing in places of heroic non-violent witness and tragic violent response, haunting museum exhibits and personal storytelling. Though all of us on the trip lived through the momentous events marked at museums and churches and bridges, truly we had no idea of the scope of the suffering, the injustice, the killing, the dehumanizing horrific violence that is our heritage as Americans lived by people of color in our country. We learned details of historic civil rights milestones that we never knew, both in making connections from the founding of our country’s economy on the back of slavery through the Civil War and the devastating failure of the Reconstruction, into an epic backlash of white supremacism with thousands of lynchings and Jim Crow Laws in the early-mid 1900’s, redlining segregation that cemented separation after black and white veterans came home after WWII, through the passage of new laws meant to liberate in the 50’s and 60’s only to require life-threatening protests to make them be a lived truth. . . through the mass incarceration shifts that occurred in later 1970’s and 1980s filling our prisons with mostly black men, to the continued systemic racism we have uniquely in the United States, alive and well even today.

Here are some words from my co-travelers from First Church!

Matt Friedman said, “The trip was wonderful. The trip was horrible. The trip was overwhelming.  I am still trying to make sense of it all and haven’t gotten too far. . . Perhaps what stands out most for me was meeting people who participated in the marches as teenagers at great risk to their safety and sometimes against the wishes of a parent. I was awed by their courage.”

Marieke Burt agreed with Matt that a highlight was meeting people who were there at the marches, bombings and sit-ins.  She wrote, “While these events were taking place in the 60’s, I was busy raising a young family and was not paying much attention to events . . . this trip was very enlightening for me.  It made me aware of how brave and courageous these folks were all in an effort to gain rights that most of the rest of the nation took as a matter of course:  voting rights, equal rights, education, integration.  Traveling with folks from a variety of faiths provided an extra depth to the overall impact of the trip. We prayed together and frequently cried together as we were exposed to the painful experiences of the many people who suffered severely while standing up for their constitutional rights.  Thank you JCC for organizing this powerful trip!”

Anne Landry said, “The Civil Rights trip was a mix for me of intense nostalgia from having lived in Alabama and Georgia from ages 9 – 24, reflection on the roots of my feelings about racial difference, and confrontation as never before the of the devastating truth about this country’s history of cruelty toward people of color. As I attempt to move from shock and sadness to some version of actual change in my thoughts and behavior, I find myself on any given day along a continuum that ranges from hopelessness to resolve. What can one person do?  . . . I now filter observations differently, more aware of my own bias and that of others. I respond perhaps more often to my grandchildren in a way that might shape their impression and actions of fairness towards others. I contribute to the Equal Justice Initiative which works “to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment and racial inequality” (www.eji.org/donate). I am on the lookout for opportunities in the local community to walk with individuals for whom racial and economic equality is a daily struggle. . .  I am imagining a world in which we all try, and in which actual change evolves.”

Mary Friedman wrote, “Across from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama is a park with a statue of the four little girls who were killed in the bombing of that church on Sunday morning, September 16, 1963.  The world was surely full of weeping during that time when, after the bombing, other children marched across that park from the church, facing the water hoses and dogs loosed on them by Police Chief “Bull” Connor and his forces.  What a moving experience to walk where these martyrs for racial justice risked arrest and their very lives for freedom!   I will remember the interactive exhibits we experienced, especially the simulation of the lunch counter sit-ins and the testimonies of black men unjustly incarcerated that we experienced at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery.. . walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the footsteps of Dr. King, Congressman John Lewis, and the many who braved the horses, tear gas, and physical violence on the march from Selma to Montgomery was something I will never forget. 

Our pilgrimage to these sites, along with my recent readings (The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, and The Heavens Might Crack by our friends’ son Jason Sokol) make me think more intentionally about my own past behavior and implications for the future.  I don’t have a plan.  I don’t have answers.  I know I am very deeply disturbed by where our country is at the moment in regards to race.  Has anything really changed? The world is still “so full of weeping” that it is daunting to consider what difference any action of one small person can make.  Being part of a group that shares experiences and justice goals is surely a bulwark against despair.” 

Dianne Doherty said, “For me the trip was incredibly powerful. To stand in the exact places where so many men and women stood up for their human rights and faced at great peril such overwhelming brutality was both humbling and inspiring. But what made these experiences so transformative for me was the spiritual composition of our companions from our community’s Jewish temples and Christian churches. In our diversity and mutual respect, I sensed we were a living example of the power of the divine to inspire love over hatred.  We who were fortunate enough to be on this pilgrimage are still wrestling with what small part we all can and must play to make a difference in civil equity or justice for all. May we still draw strength from each other on this next phase of our pilgrimage together.”

Marisa continues: “One of the most poignant elements of traveling with an intentionally faith-based group for me was in the ways we could ask each other questions about how our practices, our traditions, our spirituality, our relationships with God impacted this powerful storytelling, how it caused us to respond, how it helped us imagine the courage so many Civil Rights activists found, so many from their own personal faith journeys. Could we be that brave then? Can we be that brave now?  

But I will especially never forget when I stood inside the National Memorial for Peace and Justice – also called “the lynching museum”. Standing beneath those hanging monuments was a deeply mystical experience for me – I was at once a witness for Jesus, being his hands and feet witnessing the terrible suffering and violent death of more than 4,400 people hanging above me . . . and I was also with Mary his mother, standing at the foot of 4,400 crosses – all of them Christ.  I was confused, my heart broken open.  At the same time, I later learned, my fellow travelers were out in the memorial garden reciting the mourners’ kaddish with Rabbi Devorah, in memory of all who had died. Surely we were in that moment at the foot of the cross in Golgotha, the doors of the death camps in WWII, the base of the lynching trees, the steps of the mosques and synagogues and black churches, the hallways of the schools, the floors of the nightclubs – all the places where God’s children have been violently killed in the name of power and privilege.

I know all of us who were on that trip have come back not only changed forever in the depths of our understanding of this country’s history,  but deeply committed to making each day since our return make more of a difference in fighting racial injustice in our own neighborhoods, in our lives.  Many of us have been reading books, watching films, joining discussion groups, attending rallies and vigils, adding memberships to racial justice groups and so much more to put ourselves forward as white allies who are keeping our hearts open and our souls awake to the terrible inequality for non-white people in our country, and the horrific legacy of suffering and fear that black Americans carry still today in this land.  What part can we play in restorative justice going forward?

At the end of his book “Tears We Cannot Stop”, Michael Eric Dyson suggests that reparations are necessary for true healing to happen among black and white Americans, and names what he means by this. We can never repay all the millions of African Americans who have lost lives to slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, mass incarceration, and so many more ways equality and freedom have not been theirs.  But we can be part of the solutions that invest in building up Black American participation and flourishing in our shared American life now. Dyson recommends things like hiring more black employees at our offices and paying them slightly better than we would ordinarily pay a starting worker. . . committing a tenth of our resources to scholarships for black youth, funding their text books or buying their instruments for studying music. And he tells us, white people must educate ourselves about black life, art, music, history and culture. (Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson, 2017, Chapter 6). 

I feel committed to living a more racially just life.  I must notice more often when I am being treated better than someone else because I am white and do something about it. I must use my place of privilege to protest and advocate when I witness a person of color being doubted, feared, mistreated, and abused. I must seek out ways of standing with black Americans when they protest injustices, advocate for freedoms, commemorate black heroes or grieve where black youth have been gunned down.  I need to be visible in making the freedoms and opportunities I am so proud of in the United States truly available to all who live here, no matter the color of their skin.   This is not an option – it is required of me – not only as a white person whose opportunities have come at the expense of Native, Black, Latino and so many other American peoples in this country, but as a Christian who believes that I am saved at the Cross. If I want to claim a Risen Christ, then I must stand at the brokenness of Golgotha in our time with my voice and arms raised to the world –  embodying  life that triumphs over death, and a love that conquers hate for everyone.

The Story of the Jesus Stained Glass Window: The children of Wales, UK raised the money to design and send this Black Jesus stained glass to 16th Street Baptist after the bombing of their church which killed four young girls in 1963 – they were afraid to install it because it might provoke more violence against them – it took 3 votes of the church to pass for installation. There are bullets and an arrow on their way to Jesus’s heart, and one hand turns out to protect against the outside world, and one turns inward to the church itself. The rainbow signifies God’s Covenant to us. At the bottom it says “You do it to me” – reference to Jesus telling the story of the sheep and the goats. “What you do to the least of these, you do it to me.” (Matt. 25:40)