There are some things I think I know, and some things I will never know. But my personal experience on a trip last year taught me a great deal.
In February of 2011, a group of black and Jewish residents from Kansas City went on a civil rights journey to Atlanta and Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham, Ala. We visited the Rosa Parks Museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and other landmarks.
Seeing the historic sites, hearing from eyewitnesses, and observing the stories in the museums and monuments had a powerful impact on me as an American, as a Jew, and as a white person.
Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march in Selma, Ala., with members of Kansas City’s black community was emotional. Seeing statues of vicious dogs attacking African-Americans reminded me of shared experiences that we must all work to make sure never happen again.
I grew up as the son of two Holocaust concentration camp survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms. They, too, saw vicious dogs attacking humans and were treated brutally, only because they were Jewish.
Learning more about the laws and treatment of my black brothers and sisters here in the U.S.A. was horrifying.
In a speech on May 14, 1958, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said to a Jewish audience: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
The trip I took was one of those magical weekends that will not soon be forgotten, and will likely be etched in the memories of all the participants, who range in age from 16 to 80-plus. In addition to spending time with an eyewitness in Selma, an eyewitness in Birmingham who was close to King, and walking the Pettus Bridge together, we learned together, sang together, prayed in houses of worship together, shared together, and, for many, wiped our tears at the same time.
I have been inspired by the words and deeds of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. I am also continually inspired by the bravery, courage and valor of those who gave their lives in the struggle, both Christian and Jewish, both black and white, and those who endured inhumane hateful treatment. They paid the price for me to live today in a better U.S.A.
We owe them not to forget the lessons they painfully learned and taught. We should not allow anyone to stand alone for justice. The burden and obligation is one we must all share.
Marvin Szneler is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/American Jewish Committee serving Kansas and western Missouri.