A week before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, an activist-minded group from Philadelphia’s Jewish community headed to the American South to visit several of the sites where King most famously put his brand of civil disobedience into practice.
This year’s civil rights mission, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, in partnership with the local chapters of the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Kaiserman JCC, comprised three full days beginning in Atlanta before busing west to visit the Alabama cities of Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham.
Several dozen attendees toured the museums and grappled with the gravity of the memorials, including the newest one in Montgomery, officially called the National Memorial for Peace and Justice but colloquially known as the Lynching Memorial — by some accounts the most moving of them all.
They heard from and spoke with civil rights heroes who’ve lived to tell the stories of what it was like when the police turned the dogs and the fire hoses on them. And they met with, spoke with and dined with members of the local Jewish communities in Montgomery and Birmingham.
“We packed what seemed like two weeks into two-and-a-half days,” said Ed Blumenthal, the board chair of ADL Philadelphia. “It was constant. I took pictures, as anyone would, and the only way I could tell my family about all the things I experienced and witnessed was by looking back at the pictures. Otherwise, it was just a slew of emotions.”
The outfit that organized the emotionally eviscerating whirlwind was Etgar 36, a tour company out of Atlanta founded by Billy Planer. He started Etgar with the twin goals of teaching the history of political activism while developing Jewish identity after years leading Atlanta-area Jewish youth groups.
While Planer is quick to point out that Jewish values and principles are far from the only set of beliefs that lend themselves to activism, he does tell groups that the significance of Jewish participation in American civil rights history cannot be ignored.
“Jews, by nature, have realized that if we want to know where the world was in the ’30s or where the world was after the shootings in Pittsburgh or San Diego, we have to be there for other communities as well when it’s their turn on the front line,” Planer said, noting that of the white people who came from the North to help in the civil rights movement in the ’60s, an inordinate proportion of them were Jews.
“Clearly, with Jews in America, one of the expressions of our religion has been to get involved in social justice issues, whether it be the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, Soviet Jewry rallies, or even now with someone like Bernie Sanders who expresses his Jewish values not necessarily through religion but through activistic values.”
Arlene Fickler, the chair of JCRC, echoed these sentiments.
“As we Jews feel that it’s important for other communities to understand our history, particularly the Shoah, it’s important for we Jews to understand the histories of other communities,” she said. “And in terms of the African American community, it’s important for us to understand the history of slavery, of the civil rights movement and what’s happening in the United States today.”
Mission-goers stood in the pews of the church in Atlanta where King, and his father before him, preached; they stood in the spot in Montgomery where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus; and they visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, in 1963, four girls were killed in a bombing by white supremacists. All were enough to reduce Blumenthal to a pool of tears upon recollection.
For Arlene Fickler, the most affecting activities were opportunities to listen to and then converse with people like Joanne Bland, who was 11 when she was beaten by police during the 1965 march for voting rights across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge that’s come to be known infamously as “Bloody Sunday.”
And with people like Bishop Calvin Woods of Birmingham, the 86-year-old preacher who not only marched with King in Washington, D.C., but recounted seeing him a day before he was assassinated.
“As Jews, we are so mindful of our obligation to hear the stories of Holocaust survivors because we realize every day there are fewer and fewer of them around,” Fickler said. “And similarly, to have the opportunity to hear from these civil rights activists who were active participants in the movement, as they are aging, was a unique opportunity.”
Fickler noted that although the trip was emotional, it was more galvanizing than anything else, citing the energy and indefatigable optimism of Woods as one illustration.
“He had us up on our feet singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ It was a very emotional way to end the trip,” Fickler said.
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