Thinking about civil rights in the Deep South

Thinking about civil rights in the Deep South

When the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the national hub of the community relations network, representing 125 local Jewish Community Relations Councils and 17 national Jewish agencies, announced that it was putting together a civil rights mission just after Passover, I read the flyer and itinerary and immediately jumped up and said “YES!”

The purpose of the mission was to re-engage the Jewish community in the modern-day civil rights movement, focusing on criminal justice reform.

As a child growing up in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1950s and 1960s I lived firsthand with the two-tiered system separating whites from African Americans — separate water fountains for white people and “colored” people, separate waiting rooms in doctor’s’ offices for white patients and “colored” patients. The schools were segregated, and so were the beach and the theaters and any other gathering places. And let’s not forget the buses, where only the white people could sit up front. That was business as usual.

Everyone in my family owned a store — clothing, furniture, groceries, you name it — and they all served the African American community, mostly on the west side of town, almost exclusively. The customers called my dad, “Mr. Sidney.” Even my little 4 foot 6 inch grandmother had a dress store, and this was way before women’s lib. I had no idea that people didn’t work six days a week. So, against this backdrop, why would I want to go on this mission, when I supposedly believed that I had seen it all and lived through the changes that took place in the South?

I simply felt as though it were my moral obligation to see where the historic changes and advances in the civil rights movement had taken place. It could just be that I’m getting older, and I’m trying to squeeze in as much as possible. But I do know that I felt compelled to make this journey, and in doing so, to see if there is a possibility of doing good in the world as we move the JCPA agenda forward.

Age does not matter if you want to do a mitzvah.

The mission started in Atlanta, at the National Human and Civil Rights Museum. The group took a walk on Auburn Avenue and visited the King Center neighborhood and tomb. Then it was on to Montgomery and the Rosa Parks Museum, followed by the National Museum for Peace and Justice, sometimes called the Lynching Museum, which is backed by the Equal Justice Initiative. This was the day of the museum’s first anniversary. Inspired partly by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the museum is dedicated to the victims of white supremacy; 800 weathered steel columns hang from the roof. The day ended in Selma where we heard from Sam Walker, who was a “foot soldier” under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other leaders of the civil rights movement. As a school child he was beaten and arrested as he participated in demonstrations after school.

Then we marched as a group across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to remember Bloody Sunday, which took place on March 7, 1965, when armed police attacked and brutally beat civil rights movement demonstrators with horses, billy clubs, and tear gas as they were attempting to march to the state capital, Montgomery.

Our trip concluded at the new Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham. And in Freedom Park, across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, we met with the singing Reverend Calvin Wallace Woods, Sr., who had been on the marches with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and had been beaten along the way. His faith in God, and his unassailable belief that God was watching out for him and he had nothing to fear is what kept him moving forward.

I left with a renewed wonder in the power of Dr. King to convince others that non-violence was the way to victory and that calling attention to the civil rights movement on a national level was what was needed to push the federal government into action.

Now that I am back in New Jersey, I wonder what can I do to make things better in today’s society for civil rights. I think that the current relationship that Jews have with the African American community is different from that relationship in the 1960s. We cannot simply rely on the past. Is it OK to say that I am proud of my son, Dov Wilker, who is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta and its black/Jewish coalition? And I also know that there are organizations and synagogues in our area that are working on civil rights programs, too.

The success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s demonstrates the power of words, faith in God, and determination of man. There are so many themes on this mission that reminded me of the Jews and the Holocaust. I’m thinking. I’m thinking about why Jews must care and act. I’m thinking of what to do next. After this mission, criminal justice reform is on my personal agenda. Now I feel that we, as Jews, can and should move to enhance our present relationship with the African American community and discuss their needs with them as we attempt to move issues that impact all of us, such as criminal justice reform, forward together….

Simone Wilker of Washington Township, who recently retired as the owner of AlphaGraphics, has served as a board member of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley; she and her late husband Bernie chaired the synagogue’s move from Westwood to Woodcliff Lake. She now splits her time between Atlanta and New Jersey. She’s been involved in many Jewish organizations, such as Hadassah, JCRC, JNF, and AIPAC.

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