Retracing steps in civil rights history

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Members of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington and students from George Washington University cross the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Photo by Mikey Tapscott

SELMA, Ala. — Some sang or clapped along. Some walked quietly hand-in-hand with their children. Others gazed around to take in the moment.

When the group of visitors walking across the steel-frame Edmund Pettus Bridge reached the end, they found police blocking traffic for them. Following directions, they crossed to the bridge’s other walkway where they returned across the Alabama River and back into this historic city.

Some of the 100-plus Jews, roughly ages 5 to 90, from Washington who crossed the bridge on the Saturday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day were old enough to remember the Baptist minister and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other civil rights activists marching across the bridge for voting rights in 1965.

Others, including 20 students from The George Washington University, were tracing footsteps from what they know strictly as history. Of how the march on March 7, 1965, from Selma to Montgomery came to be known as Bloody Sunday, the day that Alabama state troopers ordered marchers to turn around and go back across the bridge, and then beat them with billy clubs when they refused.

Everyone who made the trip south over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend was trying to learn more about the civil rights struggle and understand its link to politics today. The students making the 14-hour drive in two vans were from GW’s Hillel and the university’s Multicultural Students Services Center. Others were from Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue,  organizer of the trip.

Sophomore Kyrah Altman, 20, crossed the Pettus Bridge with the memory of the 2014 movie “Selma,” based on the events of 1965, in her mind.

George Washington University sophomore Kyrah Altman, center, talks with others gathered for dinner at the Selma Convention Center. Photo by Jen Romanello

“I didn’t watch it until late last night and I’m very glad I did, because I think if I didn’t I would not have had the same emotional reaction from today,” she said. “And as I was walking on the bridge, I felt a reverence and a respect for people who walked on that bridge and their struggle. But despite their fear and their sacrifice and their struggle, they overcame that and did what they knew in their heart was right.”

Students got their first taste of Alabama on Friday morning when they gathered in Court Square in downtown Montgomery.

Before the Civil War, the square — which today is the site of a large fountain — held a slave market. The city is known both for its significance during the Civil War era, when it served as the first capital of the Confederacy, and for its role in the civil rights movement. Montgomery was the city in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus in 1955, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and helping to launch a nationwide social movement.

In response to a student’s question about how Montgomery’s history has shaped the city, tour guide Joseph Trimble noted that many social justice agencies such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Equal Justice Initiative got their start there as a result of the city’s past in the slave-owning, Jim Crow and civil rights eras.

“There’s an argument being made that because of those experiences, it’s created an environment to create organizations that perfect the world,” he said.

The visit to the square brought up conflicting feelings for 20-year-old sophomore Noel Xie.

“This is a place where you can feel a lot of pain just standing in that really sunny market square, but then you learn the history behind it was that it was a slave market,” she said. “It’s a very painful part of history, but you can see how the civil rights movement and black people have turned that into a source of strength.”

Later, the students met up with the Ohev Sholom members for a tour of the Rosa Parks Museum. The members of the Orthodox synagogue had been touring the city on a replica of a 1950s-era public bus — a reminder of Parks’ impact. Together the group visited the museum as well as the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King served as pastor for six years in the 1950s.

Freshman Henry Berg-Brousseau, 18, said that seeing these sites was an “illuminating experience” for him.

“It allows us to step out of our daily routine and think about the history of this place,” he said.

Berg-Brousseau has interned for the LGBT rights group The Fairness Campaign along with black liberation organizations. He said activism is his life’s work, noting King’s emphasis on different types of discrimination being intertwined.

“As Martin Luther King Jr. said, every part of our community is a fabric, and to mess up one string is to affect every piece of the fabric,” he said. “So we have to study history as Jews and understand other people’s oppression to help fight it and understand our own history.”

Gaps in sensitivity
But as Berg-Brousseau and others observed throughout the weekend, gaps in sensitivity between demographic groups still exists.

During dinner on Friday in Selma’s convention center, Councilwoman Susan Youngblood welcomed the out-of-town guests.

“I am touched by what the Jewish people have gone through with trial after trial, including the Holocaust,” she told them, according to the Montgomery Advertiser.

Youngblood then asked everyone with a Holocaust ancestry to stand. Roughly one-third of the room did.

Afterward, graduate student Rachel Décoste called Youngblood’s remarks “gauche.”

“I think there’s better ways to caress that community than making them stand up,” she said.

Décoste, who is working toward a master’s degree in public administration with a focus on immigration policy, said Youngblood’s singling out a group can lead to misunderstandings akin to those between small communities and the immigrants who move there.

On Saturday, Dan Schwartz, a GW history professor and member of Ohev Sholom, said that the United States has much work to do in the area of race relations. As the Washington group sat in the pews of Selma’s 117-year old Temple Mishkan Israel, Schwartz explained that the civil rights movement mixed the religious and the political.

“To avoid politics would be untrue to Selma and untrue, frankly, to the moment in American history and Jewish history in which we find ourselves,” he said.

The group gathers in Selma’s Temple Mishkan Israel to hear George Washington University historian Dan Schwartz speak about race relations. Photo by Jen Romanello

President Donald Trump has had a “long and troubled history of racial discrimination and race-baiting” over the years, Schwartz said. That included Trump’s housing discrimination against African Americans in the 1970s and the birther movement he waged against former President Barack Obama, in which he argued that Obama was not born in the United States.

Schwartz also mentioned Rep. John Lewis’ (D-Ga.) “March” trilogy, which chronicles the half century in between the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965 and Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Lewis was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which organized the 1965, and suffered severe beating to the head by state troopers.

Despite the social progress of that time, Schwartz said, the past eight years have showed that the idea of a post-racial America is “dangerous fiction.”

John Lewis was here
That Saturday was the day Trump tweeted that Lewis should “spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart.”

Lewis had said in an interview the day before that he did not view Trump’s presidency as “legitimate.” Junior Julia Barrett, 21, hearing Lewis’ name on the same day both in a historical context and in a current political one while also walking across the same bridge as Lewis shows that history is still very relevant.

“Almost every place we’ve been [this weekend], John Lewis was there,” she said.

Another living witness to Bloody Sunday was Joanne Bland, like Lewis a member of SNCC, who saw police beat her sister that day.

Bland went on to help establish the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma and now serves as a tour guide in the city. Bland led the group on a walking tour through Selma on Saturday. During a powerful moment, while the group was standing in front of a bust of King that read his words “I have a dream,” she affirmed her belief that the dream is still alive.

“I’m looking at it,” she said quietly as she looked directly into the eyes of a child at the front of the group.

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More than 100 Jews from Washington traveled to Selma, Ala., during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend for a civil rights-themed educational weekend. Photo by Mikey Tapscott

“Like Joanne [Bland] said, ‘remember you’re walking on the footprints of history makers,’” Barrett said. “And that really spoke to me.”

As the group walked around Selma, strangers came out of their homes and businesses to greet them with a smile or a simple “hello.”

“I was expecting people to be friendly, but they’ve been a lot more friendly than I thought,” said Rabbi Dan Epstein of GW Hillel.

“It’s just an eye-opener to get out and walk around in other parts of the country, especially after this election,” he said. “It’s good to get out of your bubble and really speak to people,” he said.

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