By Sydney Kass:
Today, 25 teenagers that hold the promise of triumphing in the fight for equality and civil rights hit the road and headed to Alabama. Some of us slept, some wrote, some conversed, and some listened to music. After about an hour of traveling, we finally crossed the border and had the pleasure of being welcomed by a sign that read the classic phrase, “Sweet Home Alabama”. I’m not quite sure what, but something about that sign made most of our faces light up with a smile. I think it was excitement over the prospect of having another opportunity to learn something more about our country that we so dearly love.
Shortly after passing the sign we stopped for a break. A few of us were lucky enough to meet and hear the story of a woman who, as a child, had experienced the segregated south in Mississippi and the integrated north in Michigan. She believed that there was and still is a significant difference in the progression of racial equality between the two states. Though she stated that Mississippi is at a better place than it used to be, she also admitted that it is still a step behind. For me, I was honored to have been exposed to an opinion and a perspective on the issue of racial equality from somebody who is knowledgable on both life in the south and in the north. If there was ever a credible source of information that compared each society’s civil rights, it could very well be the woman that we, by chance, had the pleasure to meet. Her optimism on the subject was extremely inspiring. From the way she spoke, it was evident that she truly believes that the struggle for racial equality in the south will eventually conquer racism. Hearing her story, I realized that it is the hope in being able to achieve racial equality that will conquer those against it.
Following our pit stop, we visited the memorial commemorating the civil rights martyrs at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The memorial listed 40 different heroes, including Emmet Till, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Thurgood Marshall, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Each name on the memorial is listed in order of the dates in which they passed. There is a gap in between the first and the last persons (the memorial is in the shape of a circle) that symbolizes those not listed who died in the fight against racial injustice. This memorial is something more than just a large sheet of granite with names on it, this memorial recognizes the struggle for freedom and the reality of the issue. I feel lucky to have seen it and to have become more acquainted with the history (good and bad) of the United States.
After visiting the memorial, Etgar 36 explored the Rosa Parks Museum. There, we learned how the civil rights movement began in the south, what society was like, and how it felt to be black prior to the beginning of the movement. Inconsistent and unfair literacy tests, unaffordable poll taxes, Jim Crow Laws, and what seems now to be a “misinterpretation” of the Supreme Court ruling “separate but equal” all limited blacks from exercising their unalienable rights as citizens of the U.S. It is scares me to think that there was a time in our free country when this treatment was condoned. Thankfully, the U.S. has come a long way. From the stories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and more, I learned that if you want change, you cannot give up and you cannot give in. The Rosa Parks Museum was definitely an eye-opening experience.
We had a great Southern lunch at Martha’s Place and as if the food wasn’t enough we also got a chance to meet Martha and hear her story. She grew on welfare and in and out of psychiatric wards and even tried to commit suicide but she always had a dream to open a restaurant. She challenged us to dream big and follow our dreams even if others dont share our dreams.
Later on, we were able to listen to a few lawyers at the Equal Justice Initiative tell the facts and discuss their opinions on capital punishment and life in prison (or, as they call it, death in prison). The EJI challenges the conditions in which prisoners are treated, the death penalty, and the act of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole. They also make it one of their goals to recognize those who were lynched in the struggle for civil rights. We learned that 10% of the people on death row are actually innocent, and that race actually plays a huge role in how a defendant is sentenced. The EJI also explained to us that it costs more to execute a “criminal” than it does for him/her to serve a sentence of life in prison. Money is valuable and instead of being used to improve society and citizens, it is being used to execute them. This meeting was a necessary, but an unpleasant awakening. The United States’ criminal justice system, which we as citizens are supposed to trust and have faith in, does, in fact, have a few flaws. In order to change and fix the system, we are going to need to continue to expose the reality of “justice”.
We then traveled to Birmingham, where we visited the 16th Baptist Church, which was the one bombed on September 15, 1963, killing 4 innocent girls. We learned that because of the actions of Birmingham’s Police Commissioner, this tragedy could have been prevented, but it was not. I have a hard time trying to fathom how any person, especially the Police Commissioner, could let this happen. This is unacceptable. Fortunately, today people understand that, and understanding is the first step to making sure it never occurs again.
Shortly after, we had the pleasure of hearing Bishop Calvin Woods’ story. He was a supporter of and active participant in the civil rights movement. We sang songs with him that he and other protesters used to sing to let people know that they would not give up. He sang and spoke with such joy, passion, spirit, and sincerity. We were extremely lucky to have met Bishop Woods. It is people with his faithfulness, passion, and loyalty that will win the fight against corruption and for justice.
Every day on this trip, so far, has been incredibly inspiring. Each day we have met new faces that have faced oppression and also seen a free America, where freedom was more a privilege than a right. We have met people who are not individually responsible for those going through the criminal justice system, but still make it their responsibility to help them. We have met people who have changed and wish to change the United States of America for the better. By meeting these people, we too are changing the country and spreading awareness. I have no idea what or who I will defend in the future, but I truly hope it is for as significant and successful a cause as those we have learned about so far.