WOODBRIDGE — Sixth-graders at Ezra Academy recently got a lesson in the Civil Rights history that they will never forget.
During a five-day trip to Alabama, specifically Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery, they spoke to people who lived the struggle and visited sites such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rosa Parks Museum, Ell Legacy Museum, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
They learned in detail about historical events such as Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March and important figures like John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Gwendolyn Webb.
The trip was powerful, according to teachers and the 15 students from Ezra who took the journey. Students said they came away seeing that while progress has been made, there’s a lot more that needs to be done and that while there are laws in place, there are ways to exhibit prejudice by getting around the laws, such as merely not having time to show a rental to an African-American, but having time to show a white person.
They also learned about Jews who traveled to help the cause in those early days of marches and protests — regular people — and the more well-known among them, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who was busy marching one day as the Congregation waited for him to start a service.
A poster in the classroom of Heschel’s legs and feet in marching stride quotes him: “When I marched in Selma, I felt my Legs were praying.”
Marcy Thomaswick, teacher of secular studies and Jewish Lifecycle class, said part of the purpose of the trip was, “to help convey they are responsible for making the world a better place.”
The students came away with the message that “stereotypes and prejudice are still alive,” she said, noting, the trip “made it real.”
Rabbi Amanda Brodie, also a teacher at the school, said the most impactful element to her was not the sites, but talking to people who brought it all to life.
“In my teaching, I think it’s a moral imperative that we take a trip like this,” she said. She said it’s part of the moral code of Judaism to try to make a difference.
Brodie, harkening back to Egypt, said slavery is significant in Jewish history as well.
One of the students, Tav, said: “I learned that even though the civil rights era played a big part,” in bringing justice, “we’re still fighting injustice today. It’s a puzzle that’s not complete and hopefully, we’re the last piece.”
Tav cited the statistic that one out of three black male children will wind up in jail.
School administrators didn’t want to use the last names of students.
Another student, Miles, said he learned while there were many distinct moments — notable happenings and people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. — he was quite impressed with the lesser known people who risked imprisonment and contributed so much.
Student Ethan said he was “shocked,” how much effort and time African-Americans “spent on finding justice.”
“I think we’ve taken big steps,” he said.
Another student, Eli, noted there is still a lot of segregation and prejudice even though there are laws against it. He learned on the trip about how people who want to discriminate may find the time to show property to a white person, but not an African-American, thereby excluding them from certain neighborhoods. Eli also said these days a black man with a cell phone might have it mistaken for a gun and get shot.
Another student, Katie, will always remember seeing the statue of four black girls killed in a church bombing in September of 1963 by a Klansman. The statue, “Four Spirits” is located in Kelly Ingram Park and was part of the trip.
“It just touched me,” Katie said. “They weren’t doing anything except getting ready for church. Blacks were targeted because of the color of their skin.”
We have a small network of schools around the country … working on social justice
Student Eydan enjoyed hearing the spirituals of the Civil Rights at one of their stops.
The images of protestors being struck by firehose really got to him.
“I thought it was very sad,” he said.
For Henry, another student, it was a lynching memorial that really got to him.
“It showed how many people died and I was surprised,” Henry said. “The scale of how many people were killed because they were black is ridiculous.” Today, he said, there is police brutality against African Americans.
Melanie Waynik, head of school, said sixth-graders from two other Jewish schools from out-of-state also took the trip that will become an annual event. She said it’s part of a social justice program she and heads of the other schools have designed for grades six through eight.
To read the student blog from the trip or view picture, go to: ezraacademyct.org.