By Miriam Berro Krugman, Mitzvah Corps Civil Rights Journey 2016 Participant
Participating in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Mitzvah Corps Civil Rights Journey was informative, eye-opening, perspective-shifting, and lots of fun; I don’t know if I’ve ever learned so much in the span of just two weeks! While the main focus of the trip was to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, we touched on the Jewish history of the South, the current state of Southern Jewish life, and the culture of the South, including its unique food, music, and sports.
On our journey, we traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama; we covered a lot of ground in just two weeks! Some of the most noteworthy experiences for me included going to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, visiting the Human Rights Campaign Headquarters in Jackson, witnessing the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis – the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated, visiting Central High School in Little Rock – famous for the Little Rock Nine, and going to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery – the sight of the KKK bombing that killed four little girls.
Especially impactful was our visit to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. While there, current interns educated us about the criminal justice work that this amazing organization performs. They then showed us a video about a man named Anthony Ray Hinton who had just been released from Death Row after 30 years, because he was finally found innocent of a crime he never committed. The news video was very enlightening and meaningful, however what happened next was ten times more powerful: Mr. Hinton walked into the room! He told us his story, from the time he was arrested to the present day. He said, “When I was arrested, I asked the detectives 50 times why I was being arrested, and they finally told me that they needed to convict someone of the crime and that they didn’t care if I did it or not. I was 29 years old.”
I have read the headlines before: “Man executed on Death Row, later found innocent” and “Innocent death-row prisoner released with $30 gift card after 30 years.” I have heard of these stories, but at the EJI, I heard Mr. Hinton’s experience first-hand, from the man himself. Witnessing him tell his story, tears streaming down his cheeks, a look of anguish on his face, made the death penalty a real issue to me. Not only did it move me deeply, it also made me more passionate and driven to affect legislative change around this life and death issue.
The biggest highlight for me came toward the end of the trip when we toured Selma, Alabama with a survivor from the original freedom march. The tour culminated in our group marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As we walked two-by-two in the same direction that the marchers did in March of 1965, I reflected. I thought of what African Americans had experienced as they marched over the bridge: they were beaten, sprayed with fire hoses, run over by horses, and so much more. There was no barricade of policemen on the other side of the bridge waiting to brutalize me and keep me from my freedoms. I wasn’t risking my life and well-being by crossing over the bridge.
I recognized my enduring privilege as a white person living in 2016. I thought about all the injustices that still occur today, especially in the Deep South. I remembered that the march never ended, that the Civil Rights Movement never ceased – not following the completion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, not after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and not as a result of Martin Luther King’s death.
The march is not over, and it won’t be until African Americans are treated equally within the criminal justice system, until women and men are paid equally for equal work, and until immigrants, those who are disabled, and people of the LGBTQ community are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. We must continue the fight for justice and equality for all.
The march continues…