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My Educational Malfeasance: How I Learned What I Wasn’t Taught

Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”  – Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative.

I recently took a Civil Rights Trip with my synagogue. We started in Atlanta, Georgia and bused to Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham, Alabama. It is here that I received a historical perspective that had not been offered in any of my educational settings. I use the word malfeasance which is defined as a harmful act. What was omitted continues to be harmful to Black Americans who continue to suffer, and to white Americans who were often mislead by significant omissions and oversights in school curriculum. As a Jew I hesitate to use this word, but I think of this unspoken history as our American Holocaust.

Retracing Horrific Steps in History

The entire trip was significant but among the most notable was the National Museum for Peace and Justice. It is the nation’s first museum dedicated to memorializing the deadly results of racism. The visual of more than 4000 steel slabs hanging, each representing a racially fueled murder, is a harsh statement about the terror imposed on Black people throughout the south and beyond.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) believes having physical markers memorializing victims of racial terror can help transform the national landscape into a more honest reflection of the history of America. To read more go to  Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.

We navigated to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, located just a few blocks from where slave auctions had been held years prior. The details of the transatlantic slave trade were overwhelming and emotional. It was here that I learned terms like convict leasing and the deadly middle passage. I heard testimonies about mass incarcerations from the individuals who were punished severely and unfairly. The visual and auditory impact was a tsunami.

We also visited the Troy University Rosa Parks Museum. Like most people, I have heard the story of Rosa Parks, who would not give up her seat on a public bus. What I did not know about the Montgomery Bus Protest is a much larger story.

 I did not know the ease in which regulations could be crafted and manipulated for the sole purpose of maintaining superiority and control.  During the protest, people still needed to get to work and efforts were made to provide transportation. Numerous laws were crafted on the spot to prohibit this from happening. An example of providing rides was carpooling in privately owned vehicles. Black drivers charged .10 which was the standard bus fare. In an attempt to stop this, city officials required that they charge not less than .45 per ride. Further, insurance companies stopped insuring cars driven by black drivers eliminating their ability to provide rides. A final straw was an injunction charging drivers with operating a private enterprise without a permit.

Selma and the Edmund Pettis Bridge was next. Selma is the site of the Bloody Sunday beatings in 1965. The peaceful walk across the bridge from Selma to Montgomery, was meant to bring attention to voting rights discrimination in Alabama. The march was halted by attacks on the marchers. The brutality was witnessed on TV across the country. It ultimately lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but it was painful.

Activist and Senator John Lewis remembers, “President [Lyndon] Johnson signed that Act, but it was written by the people of Selma.”

As I walked over this bridge, I felt embarrassed to just have learned about the events and hardships experienced by so many who simply wanted to peacefully draw attention to their right to vote. I remain troubled by the fact that the bridge still bears the name of a powerful southern man who was both a US Senator and a formidable leader in the KKK.

The Faces of the Movement

In Selma we met an amazing woman who told her story of attempting to cross the bridge only to be brutally beaten. She remembered Dr. King and told the story of his always carrying starlight mints in his pocket. Being the recipient of one of Dr. King’s mints was something to brag about.

Next stop was Birmingham, where we met 90-year-old Bishop Calvin Woods. He was the Pastor of the Shiloh Baptist church for 33 years and participated in numerous civil rights marches. To this day his focus is on love, peace, and non-violence.

“It’s a message of striving to negotiate with those who were mistreating Blacks and minorities and society,” Woods said. “It’s the message of God, and that message will save the nation.”

We returned to Atlanta. The final stop was to attend services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Founded in 1886 the EBC has stood as a beacon for civil rights and social change. Among its leaders were both Martin Luther King, Sr., and Jr. The church has been instrumental in civil rights efforts which include challenging existing voting rights, and other segregationist policies in Georgia, and across the country.

Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King are buried in a beautiful park across Auburn Street. An eternal flame burns in front of King’s tomb. It was beautiful, and even on a deary day it still held King’s hope of a peaceful world.

The exuberant almost tangible belief in hope, spoken about by so many, including Dr. King, will stay with me forever. It seems that hope shined brightest in the darkest of times and the promise of something better was the only road worth traveling. 

As Dr. King stated, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Keep The Conversation Going

This trip was truly life-changing for me. One of the many things that I learned was that we need to keep talking about this, making sure that this history does not disappear or get swept under the rug. Please keep talking about these injustices, as will I. Let’s keep this dialog going—sign up to receive blogs and information to your inbox.