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A Civil Rights Journey to Remember

A Civil Rights Journey to Remember

Green highway signs indicating proximity Alabama River and the town of Selma

A few weeks ago, 32 of us from my synagogue, Am Shalom in Glencoe, traveled to Atlanta, Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery on a transformational journey led perfectly by our rabbi and cantor. Together, we experienced not just the narratives of a history we’d read about (and that some of us had lived firsthand) but also the soundtrack of a movement.

From “This Land is Your Land” sung by demonstrators in Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport to “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus” to “I Shall Not Be Moved” to “We Shall Overcome,” we sang and sang.

We joined in song with Bishop Calvin Wallace Woods, Sr., an 83-year-old civil rights pioneer, as we chanted aloud in Freedom Park in view of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four young girls were killed in the infamous 1963 bombing.

We joined congregants in song during a Rise Up Sunday service in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. We sang “If I Had A Hammer” and “Hineh Mah Tov” on our bus.

We sang out the pain of memory and the joy of enlightenment.

In Montgomery, we learned about the Southern Poverty Law Center. We stood across the street around a water fountain memorial that commemorated 40 events reflective of the trials, struggles, murders, legal cases, and successes of a few decades of our civil rights history. We grew silent as we heard of the open spaces the memorial’s architect left vacant to house unknown future events that will need to be added

At the Equal Justice Initiative, we learned about their efforts to improve prison conditions, exonerate wrongfully imprisoned death row inmates, change laws regarding the treatment of children who are incarcerated in adult prisons, and document lynching in the south, as well as their non-litigation work on race and poverty.

On the bus to the Rosa Parks Museum, we listened to Billie Holiday’s haunting “Strange Fruit.” We learned the stories of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that went beyond the soundbites many of us grew up reading about without truly understanding.

Welcomed warmly by everyone at Congregation Beth Or, we sang, chanted, prayed, and learned together. We joined our own cantor as she participated so beautifully in the congregation where she had served years before as a student cantor. We shared dinner and stories and embraced Shabbat as a community of friends.

The next day, we were on the road to Selma, just a dirt road during the time of the March. We quietly approached a place on the side of the highway to view a memorial to Viola Liuzzo, the civil rights activist murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965 for simply driving a black man from Montgomery to Selma. On the somber bus ride to Selma, we listened to Joan Baez’s “One Tin Soldier,” John Legend and Common’s “Glory,” and a video interview with Congressman John Lewis. We listened.

We arrived at Selma’s Mishkan Synagogue, which had been the spiritual home of one of our fellow travelers. We heard his personal memories of the joys and the struggles of growing up in the congregation, and in Selma, during the height of unrest. We asked questions. And we listened. And we prayed.

We met Jo Ann Bland and heard her testimony of growing up in Selma, baffled by not being legally permitted to sit at the lunch counter in her town and ultimately joining her grandmother in activism. She marched for voting rights and marched across the Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, Turn-around Tuesday, and more. She shared details of her incarceration, the beatings, the terror. And we all walked across the Pettus Bridge, imagining the horror and grateful to be together in those moments.

Ask us to tell you about the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and about Bishop Woods and why Birmingham, originally called “The Magic City” was then dubbed “The Tragic City” and “Bombingham.” Ask us about the firehoses, the dogs, the children, the attention finally paid. Ask how it felt to hear him say, “We had the ingredient of prayer. People would pray until they got happy” and about our late-night ride back to Atlanta, each of us looking back and wondering.

Ask about our last day in Atlanta, viewing the reflecting pool and tombs of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King. Ask about sitting in the small Ebenezer Baptist Church hearing Martin Luther King, Jr., speak in his own recorded words. Ask about participating with gospel singers and musicians and preachers in a moving service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and about the sermon delivered by The Reverend Raphael G. Warnock, Ph.D. Ask about our stop at the AIDS Quilt and the Names Project, about what we learned about civil rights and the politics of AIDS in America.

Ask us about this journey and be inspired to sing out, shout out, speak out with conviction and intentionality toward building a world of wholeness, compassion, and justice. If you need a little lift, listen to 15-year-old Royce Mann sing his poem a few weeks ago in Atlanta. We are not in this alone.

In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words:

If you can’t fly, then run.
If you can’t run, then walk.
If you can’t walk, then crawl.
But, whatever you do,
You have to keep moving forward.

Learn more about the Reform Jewish community's racial justice work and get involved at

Kerry Leaf is the director of North American board engagement and development for the Union for Reform Judaism. She partners with exceptional lay leadership from congregations throughout the United States and Canada, facilitating their work with URJ staff, partners, and affiliates to strengthen congregations, promote audacious hospitality, engage our youth, and work towards tikkun olam (repairing the world). Kerry also served as past president of five non-profit boards, but her most challenging and rewarding volunteer presidency was of her former synagogue. She is currently a member of Am Shalom and Congregation Hakafa, both located in Glencoe, IL.


Kerry Leaf
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