Civil rights trip showcases history, delivers reminder of work remaining
EducationLearning outside the classroom

Civil rights trip showcases history, delivers reminder of work remaining

'It’s very important to know about it because injustice is still going on today.'

History comes to life for Jewish teens during a meeting with Rev. Dr. Calvin Wallace Woods, Sr. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh)
History comes to life for Jewish teens during a meeting with Rev. Dr. Calvin Wallace Woods, Sr. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh)

A trip south offered teens and adults a new understanding of modern U.S. history. Organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the Feb. 18-20 study tour enabled 16 students from seven part-time schools to visit sites central to the Civil Rights Movement.

With a focus on Georgia and Alabama, the three-day visit featured stops at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Equal Justice Initiative’s Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Southern Poverty Law Center Memorial in Montgomery, Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a tour of Selma, Alabama.

Titled, “Capstone Civil Rights Journey to the American South,” the trip was “made possible thanks to the very generous support of The Fine Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh,” according to Federation staffer Carolyn Linder.

Iris Anderson, 15, said that she learned about the Civil Rights Movement before the trip, but seeing renowned spaces and talking with activists was transformative.

“I know much more than I did going into it,” said the Mt. Lebanon teen who attends Temple Emanuel of South Hills. “And it’s very important to know about it because injustice is still going on today.”

Whether through racial inequality, poverty or police brutality, Anderson said, “there is still lots of racism in the world.”

Conversations with Rev. Dr. Calvin Wallace Woods Sr. and Joanne Blackmon Bland were especially moving, she added.

Woods is a civil rights activist who worked with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and advocated boycotts of Birmingham’s segregated buses. Bland is the co-founder and former director of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma and, by the age of 11, was arrested 13 times for demonstrating during the Civil Rights Movement.

“The biggest thing that this trip did for me was show how really intense it was,” Anderson said.

“It was so hard to get to where we are now, even though we are so far from where we should be.”

Eliana Kaufman, 17, also said that conversations with Woods and Bland were highlights of the trip.

Kaufman, a student at State College Area High School, said that speaking with Bland was inspiring: “It made me feel like if you want to make any sort of impact or difference in the world you have to believe that you can do it. And if you don’t think you are capable of doing it, it probably won’t happen.”

Jewish teens walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh)

Each night, trip participants had the chance to reflect and talk about daily activities.

“I had learned about civil rights in a classroom, but this was really an immersive setting,” Kaufman said.

Though mere hours had elapsed between the Jewish teen’s return home and her conversation with the Chronicle, she said she already noticed an impact.

“I want to start paying more attention to current events, to what’s going on in the world,, and feel more confident in myself,” she said.

Highland Park resident Marshall Dayan helped chaperone the trip. The Adat Shalom congregant said doing so was a natural extension of his professional duties. Dayan, 65, represents Pennsylvania death row inmates in federal habeas corpus proceedings and routinely teaches courses on capital punishment at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

He grew up in the South and said his earliest memory of moving to Georgia at age 8 was arriving at a gas station and asking his mother why it had three bathrooms.

“She had to explain why. And even to this day, I have never been able to tell this story without getting choked up,” he said.

Whether it’s relating to students what it felt like seeing separate restrooms for white men, white women and Black people, or describing his experiences representing “indigent people and learning how racist our criminal legal system is in this country,” Dayan said there are aspects of U.S. history young people must learn.

“We like to focus on the cheery stuff, the stuff that we feel makes us a special country in terms of our democracy, in terms of our diversity, but it’s not an unblemished history,” he said. “It’s critically important for us to be fully aware and conscious.”

At several points during the trip, Dayan said, he shared the contributions of Jewish lawyers and advocates of the Civil Rights Movement.

A 2023 post from the Department of Justice recognizing Jewish American Heritage Month recalled the “important support” provided by Jewish Americans: “Fully half of the young people who flooded into Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 were Jewish. Among them were Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered along with African American activist James Chaney because of their efforts to register Black voters. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel served as an advisor to Dr. King and marched with him from Montgomery to Selma in 1964. That year, 17 rabbis were arrested with Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida, after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations.”

Traveling south, seeing historic sites and speaking with activists and researchers, is a reminder of the biblical imperative regarding interpersonal relations, Dayan said.

“We have been commanded 36 times in the Torah to treat the stranger among us as one of our own because we were strangers in Egypt,” the lawyer recalled. “We have to constantly remember that human beings sometimes look different, speak different, dress different, worship different, but are all created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God). We are all commanded to be partners in that creation, and we have lots of work to do.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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