Last month high school juniors and seniors from Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua and Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills went on a three-day trip to the south to learn more about the civil rights movement and social justice. The leadership of both Antioch, a predominately African-American church, and Temple Beth El decided to make this trip together with the hope of sharing experiences and creating more conversations about this country’s history on civil rights and continued need for equality and justice. This trip was the first of its kind for both congregations, as teens joined hand-in-hand to visit, explore, and develop an even deeper understanding of civil rights.
Upon arriving in Atlanta, the teens were introduced to Mr. Billy Planer, the head of Etgar 36, the organization responsible for planning the details of the trip. Etgar 36’s mission is to empower trip participants “to get involved politically and socially to create change in the world.”
The first stop on the itinerary was Montgomery, Alabama. There the teens met an attorney from the Equal Justice initiative (EJI) and learned about the injustice that exists for those on death row. Students were then invited to view the result of the EJI’s “Community Remembrance Project,” an archive and display that contains samples of dirt from different lynching sites. As a trip participant, I found this deeply moving and a wake up call that racism was widespread, had inflicted so much pain and touched the lives of so many.
An Emotional Journey
The trip had so many different layers of history and emotion. For lunch that day, trip participants ate at a local restaurant named Martha’s Place and dined on classic southern fare. The group later met Martha, the inspirational owner of the restaurant, who talked about how she bounced back from depression, suicide attempts and poverty, overcoming tremendous adversity and making a positive life for herself.
The next stop on the trip was the Rosa Parks Museum where the group learned about the bus boycotts and the use of nonviolence against violence. The group then headed to a nearby synagogue to spend Friday night Sabbath services with the local Jewish community.
Following in the Footsteps of the Bloody Sunday Marchers
The next day the group drove to Selma, where they learned about the historic march in which police and state troopers beat and used tear gas against peaceful marchers who were advocating against racial discrimination at the voting booth. Ms. Joanne Bland, an activist who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965 met the group and talked about her experience. The group later walked towards the infamous bridge and suddenly, more than 30 students were following in the footsteps of the brave marchers who were attacked and beaten in their quest for freedom. The mood was somber and emotions were high at this pivotal moment of the trip.
Birmingham: A Hot Spot of the Civil Rights Movement
The journey continued to Birmingham, Alabama with a stop at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site where four young girls were killed in a racially motivated bombing in 1963. After heading to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the group had the opportunity to meet Rev. Calvin Woods, a civil rights leader who was a close colleague to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rev. Woods led the group in song and in words of healing.
The final stop of the trip was Atlanta where the group saw the AIDS Quilt and learned about the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community and the struggle for quality healthcare and education. The group then ventured to Dr. King’s resting place to pay their respects and concluded the trip with Sunday services at Dr. King’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
An Eye Opening Experience
Max Brickman, a junior from Greeley and a member of Temple Beth El said, “The trip was a very eye-opening experience. I feel that the stories (that were told) really gave us a clear understanding of the severity and violence of segregation.” Josh Agee, a senior from Greeley who attends Antioch Baptist Church explained, “The reason I decided to go on this trip is because I felt that I needed to know more about my history. I felt that what we were learning at school did not really describe the struggles of African Americans during the civil rights era, and I thought that this trip would provide a greater insight into my history.
“The trip was far beyond my expectations. Traveling to the historic sites made me truly feel blessed. Experiencing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Martin Luther King’s historic church and the Rosa Parks Museum were informational and eye opening experiences that I will never forget.”
Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe from Temple Beth El commented, “My expectations for this trip were easily surpassed. I was deeply impressed by the way in which our students integrated with their counterparts from Antioch Baptist Church and the seriousness and maturity they displayed throughout the trip. Our students posed thoughtful questions and took every opportunity to soak in the learning and meaning of each site and encounter. I was slightly worried that the trip would be overly scheduled and academic, but these fears were easily assuaged and I came away inspired by the students.”