Civil rights journey opens eyes, inspires action

A civil rights journey inspired local leaders to take action.

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Participants in the JUF Civil Rights Mission stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma, Ala. It is the site of the Bloody Sunday attack on marchers advocating for voting rights. Front from left: Doug Winkelstein, Abby Solow, Emily Heins, Sally Kudert, Michael Oxman; Middle: Anna Briskman, Jane Charney; Back: Blake Roter, Julie Roter, Sari Zager, Layne Zagorin, Jen Leemis and Emily Briskman.

It's an old basketball court nestled next to a playground in the George Washington Carver Homes complex off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Selma, Ala. The blacktop is chipped, and the netting has been cut off the hoop. But to Joanne Bland, it's sacred ground.

Bland was 11 years old when she stood among a group of voting rights activists who gathered in this spot to start a march from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River and were met by white police officers, who brutally beat the activists in what became known as Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

Bland now leads tours of Selma and took a group of Chicago Jewish young professionals to the basketball court as part of the experience during a JUF Civil Rights Journey.

"You are standing where heroes stood," Bland said. "Take a rock from here, and every time you look at it, think to yourself: 'I can make change happen.'"

For Abby Solow, mission chair, the Selma experience and meeting Bland were a highlight of the four-day trip organized by JUF's Next Generation Initiatives in partnership with Etgar 36. In addition to Selma, the group visited Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, where they attended Sunday services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church across the street from the King Center.

Solow was inspired by Bland's admonition to treat the possibility of change like a jigsaw puzzle. If a piece is missing, the picture is not complete -- and change cannot happen without every piece in place, Bland said.

"The entire trip was an eye-opening experience," Solow said. "When I see programs that are about some of this inequality, injustice and segregation, I'll be more eager to continue learning and taking action."

In Montgomery, the group visited the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum, which traces the history of racial inequality and economic injustice in the United States. Built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned, the museum draws a straight line from slavery through Jim Crow to segregation and mass incarceration.

In 2018, EJI unveiled the National Memorial for Peace & Justice, which honors the memories of Black lynching victims, and identifies every county in the United States where a lynching took place. More than 800 steel blocks engraved with names and dates hang in rows. The walls are a stark reminder of the perpetrators' inhumanity on plaques that list the purported reasons for the racial terror, such as "refused to run an errand for a white woman" or "reprimanded white children who threw rocks at her."

"The Museum showcases the continued injustice in our country and the need for action," Solow said. "The Memorial was quite something. I loved the idea that each county where a lynching happened can have a matching block and begin to acknowledge that history."

The goal of the trip was to connect civil rights history with current issues in Chicago and in the broader United States. From the rise in hate crimes to continued disinvestment in south and west side neighborhoods, Chicago remains fertile ground for action.

"We walked away not only learning a lot more about this terrifying part of our history, but also inspired to push ourselves to become active allies in the continued fight for civil rights and liberties in our country," said Doug Winklestein, who participated in the experience with his fiancé Michael Oxman. "Living in Chicago, there is not only a strong need to get involved, but there are also so many opportunities to do so. Knowing that JUF can be our connector to doing our part makes us feel even further invested to all of the great work that we can do together as a community." 

To learn more about similar opportunities in the future, contact Sally Preminger Kudert, JUF Assistant Vice President -- Next Gen Initiatives: SallyKudert@juf.org or 312-357-4689.

Jane Charney is the Director of Domestic Affairs at JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council. 



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