I Took My Son on a Civil Rights Tour of the South

The memorial mural on the other side of the Edmund Pettus bridge commemorates the dozens who died on Bloody Sunday. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

Last year in my son’s eighth grade social studies class, they discussed the civil rights era but according to him, they were short on time and (as he explained) “kind of rushed through it.”

So when the movie Selma came out last December, depicting the events that led 600 civil rights marchers to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965, it seemed a ripe opportunity to add to the lesson. Simon and I watched the film together, and it was just a few weeks later when I announced we’d be taking a special trip together — a three-day journey to the deep South to learn more about civil rights.

“A what kind of trip?” Simon asked when I first broke the news we’d be going.

“A civil rights journey,” I answered with extra enthusiasm. “It’ll be really interesting and fun!”

I knew that an education-filled bus trip was hardly the top vacation choice for your average teenager. But I also knew that this type of opportunity — a trip geared toward kids his age, and already including two of his close friends — doesn’t come around every day.

Organized by the New York-based J-Teen Leadership, a community service organization for Jewish high school students, this “Civil Rights Journey” gave 15 teenagers — and some accompanying parents — a close-up and personal view of the civil rights struggle in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama. While the early 1960s and the struggles faced by African Americans made up the trip’s foundation, the civil rights of all people, including refugees, religious minorities, and people with disabilities, were also part of the itinerary. (In addition to J-Teen Leadership, which will be running another trip next winter, other companies offering Civil Rights trips include Etgar 36 and EFT Educational Field Trips.)

The J-Teen group at Stone Mountain, Georgia. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

Our first stop was Stone Mountain, Georgia, 10 miles from downtown Atlanta and known for having the largest high-relief sculpture in the world — it measures three acres, larger than a football field — depicting three Confederates: Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Once a rock quarry, and the site of a cross burning in 1915 that marked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, Stone Mountain is now a park with hiking trails and a nighttime laser show. Although the sculpture’s carving was started in 1923, artistic disputes and funding problems interrupted its completion until it was finally finished in 1972.

While many of the teens were eyes deep in electronics aboard the bus, our stops were filled with discussion and a chance to digest the struggles of the civil rights era. Walking down Auburn Avenue, in the Sweet Auburn district, we stopped to see the birthplace and childhood home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he delivered his first sermon. A few blocks away at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, opened in 1968 by Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, we paused to pay our respects at their tombs, which sit in the middle of a reflecting pool. While our group recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, Simon and I crouched to find two rocks in the dirt and placed them on the ledge around the pool, a Jewish custom.

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A moment of reflection at the tombs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

Meeting and listening to Hank Thomas, who was a 19-year-old Howard University student when he joined the Freedom Riders in 1961, gave us an emotional firsthand account. Over a dinner of southern fried chicken at the Temple, the oldest synagogue in Atlanta and site of a bombing by white supremacists in 1958, Thomas spoke directly to the teens about his decision to join the movement and what it was like to be on the Freedom Rider bus when it was firebombed by Klansmen in Anniston, Alabama on May 14, 1961. “Rebellion came naturally to me,” Mr. Thomas said. “I wear my 22 arrests like a badge of honor.”

The group with Hank Thomas, one of the original Civil Rights Freedom Riders. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

At the Clarkston Community Center in Atlanta, a vibrant hub offering education, recreation and community building in an effort to bring together any refugees who’ve come to the area — 57 languages are represented there — and local residents. In the center’s on-site community garden, everyone got their hands dirty. Simon and his friends used a wheelbarrow to transfer soil that they then heaved into a new planting bed for strawberries — one of the many fruits and vegetables that refugees can grow to eat and sell at the community market.

Simon, right, and his friend, Jonathan, prepare a planting bed in the Clarkston Center community garden. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

Arriving in Montgomery, Alabama after a three-hour bus ride, we checked into the Doubletree hotel and were welcomed with warm, chocolate chip cookies upon check-in. The following morning, we stood where Rosa Parks boarded a bus on December 1, 1955, and then took an historic stand by refusing to give up her seat to a white man. Steps away, the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University has a series of multimedia exhibits, where we watched a simulated version of that notorious bus ride, and learned about the politics and complicated steps that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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The author and her son Simon, in front of the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

A short walk from the museum brought us to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and its Civil Rights Memorial Center. The SPLC center, whose motto — “Fighting Hate, Teaching Tolerance, Seeking Justice” — is dedicated to battling bigotry and pursuing hate groups. Before entering a room to “sign” the digitally-displayed Wall of Tolerance, a guide spoke to us about the history and current work of the SPLC.

Joanna Bland, who was 11 when she joined the historic marches in 1965 across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, places “a piece of history” in Simon’s hand. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

After pulling into the city of Selma, we got off in front of the First Baptist Church and were greeted by Joanne Bland. Already part of the movement by age 11, Bland joined the 1965 marches across the Edmund Pettus bridge, witnessing the vicious beatings of other marchers by Alabama State police. This march eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Bland spoke of her participation in the early 60s with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists, who used the First Baptist Church as its headquarters. She ushered our group from the church to a nearby schoolyard and asked us to each find a stone around the blacktop area. We formed a circle and Bland told us to hold the rock in our hand and raise it in the air. We were, she pointed out, holding a piece of history in our hands — this was the place from where they began the march that would eventually change the course of civil rights history.

For Madison Goldberg, a high school freshman from Rye Brook, New York, hearing the story firsthand made a deep impression. “It made me feel connected to the people who marched on a more personal level than watching a movie or reading a book could ever give me,” she said.

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Joanna Bland escorts our group to the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

Bland escorted us to the ramp to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge — named for a former Confederate general — which crosses over the Alabama River. A sunny day with traffic racing by, we marched our own march, gathering on the other side near a monument and mural to remember the 40 people killed on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

Back on the bus, we drove an hour and a half to Birmingham where we checked into another Doubletree (more cookies!). At nearby Temple Emanu-El, our students met a group of teens from PEACE Birmingham (People Engaged in a Cultural Exchange), an interfaith youth group. After introductions, the teens broke into small clusters, played ice breaking games, and talked about stereotypes and prejudice.

Students from J-Teen Leadership and PEACE Birmingham. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

With some free time and craving a bit of barbeque, a bunch of us opted for the short walk to Jim ‘N Nicks for some much-needed soul food — wings, ribs, and some cheese biscuits.

When Willie Thomson and Jerome Dunson were introduced to us at the Disability Rights & Resources center in Birmingham, I noticed my son sit up in his chair. The civil rights of the homeless wasn’t a concept that many of us had thought about, and we were happy to meet the two men, who — thanks to the center and their homeless outreach coordinator — would soon be moving off the streets of Birmingham and into their own apartments.

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Getting a tour at the Disability Rights & Resources Center in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

“How did you stay away from drugs?” Simon asked, after the men agreed to take questions. “It was hard,” Jerome answered, “But I knew I had to in order to get off the street.”

After more questions from the teens (Were they in touch with family? How did they find food to eat?), Simon and his peers offered the men gift cards to help out with their new homes, and got hugs in return.

We also met Josh Whitmire, a peer advocate at the center who, maneuvering his wheelchair, moved through doors, switched on lights, and led us around a city block, pointing out the importance of regulations that are essential to a disabled person’s mobility. After this eye-opening experience, I wondered if Simon would give thought to the height of a light switch, the accessibility of a sidewalk, and the pitch of a ramp when he got back home. I know I will.

The statue at the Kelly Ingram park in Birmingham, dedicated to the non-violent Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights movement. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

Kids had a lot of power during the civil rights movement. Walking through Kelly Ingram Park across from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we stopped at the memorial sculptures and learned about the 5,000 children who joined the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham in May 1963. Known as foot soldiers, many of these children walked for miles to join the non-violent protest, only to be met by Birmingham’s police, their violent dogs, and their high-pressure hoses that blew kids to the ground.

“It made me extremely sad to think that a person could do such a horrible thing to someone so innocent,” said Madison Goldberg.

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The 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four girls were killed in a 1963 bombing. (Photo: Caren Osten Gerszberg)

One of those innocent foot soldiers was Ricky Powell, who was 15 at the time and had lost his good friend, Cynthia Wesley, among four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September, 1963. Now a 66-year-old singer and actor, Powell told us: “We were instructed if someone spits on you, you bear it with no retaliation. It was an awful time,” Powell said.

After sharing his story, he sat on a chair, looked straight ahead and in his deep voice, began to sing a civil rights hymn:

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a walkin’, keep on a talkin’
Marchin’ down to freedom land!

Back on the bus we settled into our cozy seats, but the work for the teens wasn’t done. One by one, they were asked to come to the front of the bus to share a reflection from the trip. One student mentioned being in awe of the children’s bravery. Another wondered how she would’ve reacted had she grown up during the civil rights era. Simon said that he was impressed by the speakers’ comfort in sharing their stories. We all knew we’d been lucky to have heard them.

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