A Transformative Experience – Reflections from WHC’s 8th Grade Civil Rights Trip

The Washington Hebrew Congregation 8th Grade Confirmation Trip, “Journey to Georgia/Alabama 2020” hosted by Rabbi Eliana Fischel, Ira Miller and Yolanda Savage-Narva from Operation Understanding DC proved one of the most profound experiences of my life. 

Having grown up learning in school about Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and other Civil Rights icons, I was excited to learn that our temple would conduct a trip focused on this chapter in American history. My mother and children joined me on this adventure to further educate ourselves about the Civil Rights movement and human rights in the Deep South. The trip’s main objective was to offer a variety of perspectives through the eyes of Jewish and African American leaders and connect their history with the current events that shape our world today. We were eager and excited for the opportunity to visit historic landmarks and interact with some of the brave souls who devoted their lives to the civil rights movement. 

Our introspective journey to the Deep South began at the Shiloh Rosenwald School, located in Tuskegee, Alabama. The school built in 1913, was a collaboration of the African American educator Booker T Washington and Julius Rosenwald, the Jewish philanthropist and owner of Sears and Roebuck. Rosenwald contributed funds towards the construction of almost 5000 schools to provide quality educational opportunities for African American children. We were captivated by the stories of the proud African American students who attended the school more than 60 years ago. Dorothy Moseley recalled her experiences, speaking about her journey and struggles as a young African American girl growing up in the segregated South.  She remarked that her school was a “hall of learning” and what she learned at Shiloh Rosenwald helped prepare her for high school, college, and life. As we toured the school, we were amazed by our hosts’ warmth, positivity and courageous message of hope, peace, and prosperity.

The highlight of the Shiloh Rosenwald visit took place at the end of our discussion when Ms. Moseley introduced one of her former white high school classmates who noted there were negative “outside” influences pushing against white students as change took place in their community and in the Deep South. He stated that when their high school integrated, whites and blacks were forced to interact with one another. At first, it was very challenging but he shared that positive changes came through socialization and learning from one another. He recalled many of the African American students excelled at sports and that some of his black classmates taught him to dance, and he was grateful. Listening to the speakers’ powerful messages reinforced my belief that we can all work together in order to create a peaceful and productive world. We can achieve great things if we all work together for the common good. 

Later that day, we visited The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, formally known as the National Lynching Memorial, located in Montgomery, Alabama. The site documents the most active era of racial terror lynchings between 1877-1950. As we entered the memorial grounds, we viewed statues depicting African American men, women and children handcuffed, shackled and enslaved. The images of the slaves conjured up thoughts of the Holocaust and the rounding of Jews being sent to their deaths in concentration camps. As we made our way through the grounds, we viewed more than eight hundred steel, six-foot-tall, rusted mini monuments representing the victims of lynchings in the US. The monuments marked the names, states, dates, and counties of African American souls who were senselessly killed. The pavilion floor sloped downward where the monuments were suspended, recalling the terrible fate of the lynching victims. The sight of two African American women sobbing and consoling one another as they toured the slave monuments left an indelible mark on us. As we proceeded to the Legacy Museum, situated on the land where enslaved African Americans were warehoused, this reinforced the hatred, bigotry, and segregation that took place many years ago. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) aptly documents the fight against racial inequality and economic injustice in the US through the museum’s numerous exhibits and videos.  Bryan Stevenson, EJI founder, created the museum to illustrate enslavement past and present. The museum dedicates itself to the deplorable conditions of the prisons and mass incarceration of blacks young and old, many imprisoned only for being black.  

It is incumbent upon all of us to speak out on our collective goal for equal justice as the US has fallen short in its acknowledgment of the legacy of slavery, lynchings and racial segregation. Our visit to the EJI memorials and museum was a humbling and transformative experience that has inspired my family to take action. We are going to make sure our voices are heard and plan to make a difference by taking action in our community. 

On day two, we visited Selma, Alabama and toured the old and decrepit city with Joanne Bland, a Civil Rights activist and leader. She shared her stories and memories from the turbulent times growing up in Selma. She brought us to the historic Brown Chapel A.M. E Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered one of his most famous speeches moments before embarking on the historic Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Act March. Bland had our entire group stand on the church steps and recite together, “Black Lives Should Matter, All Lives Should Matter” and then she had every child recite separately, “I Am the most important part of the Puzzle.” Miss Bland recalled her personal story and first experience with racial segregation. She shared her story about the day when she learned that she would not be permitted to sit at the front counter of the local supermarket ice cream counter with white customers. Miss Bland realized at that moment what segregation meant and that she did not have the same rights as whites. She brought us to the local playground directly behind the Brown Chapel Church, where she once played as a child. She instructed us to pick up a rock from the historic grounds marking the first steps where she and hundreds of other brave civil rights activists embarked on the March 7, 1965 Voting Rights March known as Bloody Sunday.  Miss Bland recalled the infamous day when multiple people were killed and hundreds brutally beaten by the police for marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a justice mission from Selma to Montgomery. She shared the importance of the rock and how it represented our place in history and that we must all speak up and be history makers. When our group marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge later that afternoon, we thought about the innocent people who were murdered and beaten marching for justice. We marched in their footsteps, brave souls who risked their lives for civil rights and we walked to honor them and continue the fight for justice. 

During our trip, we also visited the Rosa Parks Museum, Tuskegee Museum, Kelly Ingram Park, 16th Street Baptist Church, Temple Beth Or and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. These were all memorable and meaningful experiences that redefined our understanding of the civil rights movement. The trip was extra special because I shared my thoughts and experiences with my mother and children. My mother commented that it was a privilege to travel with WHC clergy, teachers and families on the Civil Rights journey. The opportunity to walk in the footsteps of such a dramatic and evil time in our nation’s history will always be in our memories. I sincerely hope WHC schedules this trip on an annual basis for all congregants to experience and educate themselves. I look forward to taking action in the community, making a difference, and serving as a history maker. 

As Dr. Martin Luther King brilliantly stated,” History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

About the author:

Jon Solovey grew up at Washington Hebrew Congregation and has been a member in his own right for WHC for 40 years. He celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1982 and was a member of the Confirmation class of 1985. He married his wife, Jennifer, at WHC in 2002. His children, Jack and Jenna, joined him on this trip and will be part of the Confirmation class of 2022 and 2023 respectively.

Jon is a Senior Natioal Sales Manager with Verizon Broadband. In his free time he enjoys taking family roadtrips, attending local sports events, coaching his son’s basketball and soccer teams, and playing tennis with his kids.