Our Own Selma Experience: One Family’s Road Trip Through the South

I love that we travel as a family and that my kids, who are 12 and 14, are able to see a world outside their own. They’ve ridden camels in the Negev, Israel, spent the day with artisans in San Spirito, Italy, kayaked around the Sea of Cortez, Mexico and had monkeys climb all over them on the island of Gibraltar.

But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way in which I’m exposing my kids to the world.

My daughter has been learning about the Civil Rights Movement in school. We’ve also been talking a lot at home about Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the state of race relations today. I’m passionate about racial and gender equality, but to be honest, Ferguson, and even Staten Island, seem so far away from our comfortable lives in San Francisco.

[Read: The 10 Most Ethical (and Beautiful!) Travel Spots to Visit in 2015]

As Jews, my husband and I believe in teaching our kids it’s their responsibility to help make the world a better place. The concept of Tikkun Olam—repairing the world—and doing our part to fix what is broken is an important family value. But I’m starting to question how I can teach my kids to repair something they haven’t seen up close. How can they help without really understanding with their eyes wide open why something was broken in the first place?

So, this past December, I had a crazy idea, and thankfully my husband was fully supportive. I wanted to go to the South during the kids’ winter break from school. I wanted to spend time road tripping through Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham and Memphis. By diving in fully to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, I knew we would not only learn more about an important time in US history, but also learn more about ourselves. I’m happy to tell you it was one of the most wonderful and rewarding trips we’ve ever taken.

We had planned to visit many historic sites, and they didn’t disappoint. We also spent time at some terrific museums. But what I didn’t expect was that we would learn the most from the people we met along the way. In each town we visited, hands reached out to shake ours. Many times we were greeted with spontaneous hugs. The people we met often moved us to the point of tears.

[Read: 7 Little Changes in Your Daily Life That Will Ignite Big Change]

In Atlanta we attended Southern gospel church services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Martin Luther King Sr. was pastor here, and in 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. joined his father as co-pastor. There must have been 1,000 people on the day we attended services. Before our trip, the kids were worried about how we would we be perceived—a white Jewish family from California in a black Baptist gospel church in Atlanta? Their fears subsided immediately after we walked through the doors of the church, where we were welcomed and then escorted to a seat right up front. From the glorious music to the many people who came out from the aisles to shake our hands and greet us, we were deeply touched. We were a minority here in this church, yet we felt so accepted regardless of the color of our skin. To see my kids being embraced without reservation even though we were the outsiders was pretty powerful.

In Selma, we spent the day with Joanne Bland. Joanne was born and raised in Selma and encountered racism daily in town. She was forbidden to do many of the typical things that little kids do because she was black. Simple things like sitting at the soda fountain in town while eating an ice-cream cone, or trying on pretty shoes at the local department store. Influenced by her strong grandmother, Joanne became a passionate crusader for Civil Rights. On the front lines of the struggle, she marched on Bloody Sunday, Turn Around Tuesday and the first leg of the successful March from Selma to Montgomery.

[Read: Historic Selma, AL March Headquarters to Open]

We stood at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge as Joanne described the beatings she witnessed on the very spot where we were standing of fellow marchers by police 50 years ago. After all these years, she could still vividly recall “people just screaming and screaming as the police shot tear gas canisters into the crowd.” She saw people being trampled and run down by horses, blood everywhere and even her sister with a bleeding head wound.

I kept thinking that my kids are about the same age as Joanne and her sister when they marched on that Bloody Sunday. I wondered how Joanne’s father felt when she and her sister Lynda left home to march again and again and yet again. I wondered what it would feel like if it were my kids. I wondered if Joanne was scared.

My kids were unusually quiet later that evening. It was a pretty intense day.

We visited the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, which was founded in 1877 in a slave trader’s pen. Dr. King was pastor there from 1954 to 1960. Much of Montgomery’s early Civil Rights history activity was directed by King from his office in the lower unit of the church. Our lovely guide took my hand during our tour, squeezed it, and sang “We Shall Overcome.” She smiled at me as she sang, and I smiled back with tears in my eyes. She hugged my kids. I felt love for this woman who I just met and will probably never see again. Love, I thought, surely can conquer hate.

[Read: Are You So Plugged In You’re Out of Touch?]

Julie Levine Children Birmingham PledgeWe took a hike in Birmingham at the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve with an organization called The Birmingham Pledge Foundation. We were a diverse group of about 30. We recited the Birmingham Pledge at a clearing along our path.

We agreed to “strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from our thoughts and actions.” We pledged to “discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity.”

My son and I held hands as we walked back from the hike. He told me that it made him angry when people stereotype. He said that “we” should only judge people by their actions. “It’s about how you treat people, Mom,” he said.

In Memphis, we visited the 16th Baptist Church. Reading the names Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair on a simple headstone outside the church sent chills through my entire body. I thought about how vulnerable I feel for my kids. I thought about the increasing anti-Semitism in the world today. I hugged my kids a lot on this day.

[Read: The Power of Words]

On the plane back to San Francisco, my daughter and I had a chance to talk and reflect on our trip. She asked a lot of questions about our own family history: the sacrifices our grandparents and their parents made, and the risks they took for their freedom and ultimately for our freedom.

She told me she thought a lot during our week about the importance of sharing personal stories. She was deeply affected by hearing the stories of real people in real time. “Stories are powerful, Mom,” she said, “and they can empower others.” We talked about the protests today and the slogan that’s been adopted, “Black Lives Matter.” “All lives matter,” she said.

I know the trip made a big impact on both of my children. The Civil Rights Movement was so much more than Martin Luther King Jr. and a handful of well-known leaders. It was about the many men, women and children who risked their lives for what they knew was a God-given right. Joanne inspired my kids to not just talk about injustice, but to act on it. I hope they remember to reach out to people who are different than them, just as people reached out to us during our trip.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest essay]

We are back to our lives now, filled with work and school, homework, after school activities, friends and family. But the trip changed us all. Our eyes have indeed been opened, but more importantly so have our hearts.

I hope we can take more trips like this in the future. I hope I’ve inspired you to take a trip like this with your families.

Julie Levine Family

{Image credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive at the Library of Congress}

About the Author

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Julie Levine is the founder of the Jewish lifestyle blog, Florence & Isabelle, that features modern style, beautiful design, delicious food, great books and art and interesting articles from around the globe through a Jewish lens. In addition to blogging, she writes for the blog Raising Kvell. Julie lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children.Follow her on instagram and pinterest.

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