Bridges: Bending Toward Justice

June 21, 2024Simona Seiderman

A bridge is a structure between two points, and is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “pathway over an obstacle.” Indeed, the Civil Rights Movement has been replete with obstacles! Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) said, “. . . the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I was alert to the landmark events of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. In addition, my training as a nurse and social worker helped me understand the role of individual and intergenerational histories in shaping the present.

While this background was helpful, I learned so much more on WRJ’s Civil Rights Journey (CRJ), a four-day trip to racial justice landmarks in Georgia and Alabama.

CRJ traced some of the many obstacles our Black siblings have had to overcome. Throughout the journey, our cohort viewed their struggles through a Jewish lens as we took in both the content and the process of what we were learning.

On the first day of our journey, we went to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Ala. I learned that Ms. Parks came to be known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” because she was arrested in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. Tired of giving into a cycle of injustice, she was moved to action by the brutal murder of Emmett Till just four months earlier. The day after her arrest, a memo was distributed announcing a bus boycott to protest segregation on buses. When segregation was ruled unconstitutional, the 382-day protest ended.

As a social work intern in 1980, twenty-five years after her arrest, I was privileged to hear Rosa Parks speak. Today, some forty years later, my recollection of Ms. Parks is of a woman small in stature, with a courage and conviction that made her appear like a giant in my eyes.

The next stop on our journey was at the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Legacy Sites in Montgomery, where we visited The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as The National Lynching Memorial.

The Legacy Museum recounts the history of slavery and chronicles the slave trade. The exhibit reminded me of the overcrowded trains that transported Jews to concentration camps. I wept for my Black siblings. I wept for my ancestors.

As Jews, we are taught that it is our sacred duty to remember. We remember the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. Now we remember the hundreds of Israelis who have died since October 7, 2023! And we remember our loved ones who have died. We also remember the Black Americans who died and continue to die in the fight for civil rights and justice.

The National Lynching Museum houses more than 800 corten hanging steel planks, representing the known Black Americans who were lynched. I researched the name of one of these victims, Mary Turner. Eight months pregnant, she was lynched because she protested her husband’s hanging the day before. The mob mutilated her body and crushed her crying baby’s head as it dropped from her body.

This memorial engendered an enormous amount of shock and emotion for our group. We said Kaddish outside the memorial to honor those whose lives had been stolen. I will remember those who were murdered because of the color of their skin! 
 

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Civil Rights Journey museum

 

Carrying these painful thoughts and feelings, we continued our journey to Selma, Ala. 
 

In Selma, we met JoAnne Bland, a Civil Rights freedom fighter. By the time she was 11 years old, JoAnne was arrested 13 times. She was the youngest person to be jailed for taking part in civil rights demonstrations, including the Selma marches. 
 

The Selma marches took place to demand voting rights for Black Americans and to protest the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, which occurred that February during a voting rights protest. 
 

During our visit, JoAnne took us to the site where the marches started. At this site, she asked each of us to pick up a rock. She told us that if we ever needed courage to speak up and do the right thing, we should hold that rock in our hand and remember the brave individuals who were willing to fight and sacrifice their lives for what was rightfully theirs. 
 

On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and over 600 others attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This date is known as “Bloody Sunday,” because police viciously attacked and beat the marchers. 
 

On “Turnaround Tuesday,” two days later, Dr. King led more than 2,500 marchers to the bridge, stopped to pray, and then went back to Selma. MLK then filed for and was granted a permit to cross the bridge. At that time, President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, and charged them with protecting the marchers.

 

On March 21, MLK, along with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and 25,000 others, including JoAnne Bland, marched to Montgomery. On the steps of the state capital, MLK stated, “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the Black man. That will be the day of man as man” (King, “Address,” 130).
 

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MLK marching

 

Knowing that Rabbi Heschel marched with MLK makes me feel proud as a Jew. I have emulated him and “prayed with my feet” for causes I believe in. When WRJ walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I experienced a surge of pride on the one hand, and a profound sense of sadness on the other: Pride that I am involved in the fight for civil rights, and sadness that there still exists a need for such a fight.

While the Black story is the Black story, and the Jewish story is the Jewish story, it is well-documented that Hitler was influenced by American slavery, and the racist murder of Black people in North America. In fact, as they persecuted Jews, the Nazi regime carried out many acts of anti-Black violence during the Holocaust. During my journey, the connection between slavery and the Holocaust became crystal clear. A trip to the South and a trip to Yad Vashem in Israel bears out this truth! 

The history I witnessed on the CRJ, compounded with my personal connection to the Holocaust, caused me to experience deep emotional upheaval and pain. There were so many times when I wanted to look away. I told myself, “You are only witnessing the horror; the people you are learning about lived it!” In reality, it was not too different from being a therapist, except that on the Journey, the secondary trauma was nonstop.

Amidst the present-day murders of men like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, I am acutely aware that racism and lynching have not ended; they merely changed forms. In addition, legislatures and courts nationwide have diluted the monumental Voting Rights Act of 1965, making voting much harder for Black Americans and other marginalized populations.

After my journey, I felt a need to fill in the pieces of the puzzle of the Civil Rights Movement. Along with another CRJ participant, Marilyn Nathanson, we researched and developed a 70-slide multimedia presentation documenting the significance of the trip. In February 2023, we presented our findings at Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, MI.

The Civil Rights Journey with Women of Reform Judaism set the stage for me to become involved with WRJ, and with my own sisterhood. Today, my activism highlights the connection between all struggles against bigotry, whether it be racism or antisemitism. By sharing our experiences and fighting for all those oppressed, we form a bridge: a path to traverse our unique and shared obstacles.

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