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Moving and Meaningful Stories from “Our Civil Rights Journeys”

03/03/2020 01:25:19 PM


Four members of Temple Beth El reflected on their recent travels at a well-attended program entitled “Montgomery, Selma, Atlanta, DC: Reflections on Our Civil Rights Journeys,” on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. Rabbis Bonnie Margulis and Jonathan Biatch joined a group organized by the Central Conference of American Rabbis for 48 intense hours in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. Mary Fulton and Steve Koslov spent a week visiting civil rights memorials and museums in Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Washington, DC.

The rabbinical group included 50 rabbis and two women who participated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. They discussed the roots of our nation’s slave history and the fact that our country was founded on the original sins of Native genocide and African enslavement. Facing such profound transgressions and their lasting effects, the rabbis’ talk turned to teshuvah and what it means to pursue meaningful repentance. Rabbi Margulis said that to make real change, we need to open our hearts to feel real empathy, not just undertake actions for display. Rabbi Biatch talked about how the concept of repentance might inform policy discussions about reparations for enslavement. He noted that in December, the Union of Reform Judaism adopted a resolution supporting an in-depth study of reparations, seeking an end to ignorance and transforming knowledge into action.

Mary Fulton and Steve Koslov traveled with a friend who had devoted her career to poverty and civil rights work in the South, hoping to extend their understanding of enslavement, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and mass incarceration. They were in part inspired by TBE’s 2018 racial justice programming, including the movie 13th and the books Just Mercy and The New Jim Crow.

They began at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. In Montgomery, they visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (“the lynching memorial”), the Legacy Museum, the Rosa Parks Museum, the Freedom Rides Museum, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and they retraced the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. They ended at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, where they were impressed by a timeline of white dominance and how the concept of “whiteness” developed.

For Mary, the museums spurred family memories as well as historical insights. Mary shared that her father, a professor of religions of the world and ethics, taught at a number of colleges over his career. In 1962, Dr. Fulton invited the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak to his classes in Puerto Rico, and he stayed at their home. Dr. King spoke of starting a “peace army” to take nonviolent action in support of civil rights, and convinced Mary’s parents to come to Birmingham. There they lived on the campus of a black college, which made their house the only integrated housing in Birmingham. The family was ostracized and the children were shunned at school, where Mary’s brother was beaten up in gym class. After Klan members circled the campus and their house one night, the college asked Dr. Fulton to move his family away for their own safety. Mary said, “We were witness to what Jim Crow was, but we had the privilege to leave.”

While at the college, Mary’s father joined a protest march and served a weekend in jail—the weekend that resulted in Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” At the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, a photo of Mary’s father marching is part of an exhibit about Dr. King. At the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Mary was deeply moved by an exhibit that included holographic forms of enslaved people and voices of those who were trafficked. As she turned away from the exhibit in grief, she saw the same picture of her father marching.

In the Q&A after the presentation, speakers were asked to share their most interesting insights. Rabbi Margulis said that for her, it was the actual words and memories of people who lived through the era. In addition to the voices of the past, she noted the importance of listening to the diversity of voices in the African American community today. For Rabbi Biatch, it was the idea that while we may not feel personally responsible for the past, we are still required to do the work presented to us now. We must start by acknowledging how we have benefited from the poverty and enslavement of others and by resolving to build a better future for all. Steve felt a strong connection between the injustice of the past and the wrongs of today—for instance, how the system of policing and bail that we have today evolved from bounty hunters in the distant past. Mary said that she keeps returning to a quote from attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of the book Just Mercy and founder of the organization that established the lynching memorial: “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” Reconciliation with our history is possible, but first we must face it head-on.

The presentation concluded with a discussion of next steps for learning, service, and advocacy. Members expressed interest in working with congregations from the African American community, organizing visits to museums in the Midwest, and perhaps taking a similar congregational trip to the South. Please join the TBE racial justice action team if you are interested in deepening your knowledge or putting this knowledge into practice. Contact Aleeza Hoffert.

December 10, 2023 27 Kislev 5784