Civil Rights Journey: Portlanders learn to see "an-other"

PHOTO: Kelly Ingram Park sits across the street from Birmingham's historic 16th Street Baptist Church -- the infamous setting in 1963 of a bomb set by members of the Ku Klux Klan that killed four Black girls taking a break from their Sunday church service to use the restroom. In that park are both terrifying and inspiring monuments to the civil rights movement. This one -- depicting the dogs white law enforcement officials sicced on Black activists -- is among the most terrifying. Trip partcipants look on, stunned.

Microphone in hand, Billy Planer stood at the front of the moving bus on its way to its first stop, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and said to his group, “Just talk to people. Those who don’t talk like you, don’t look like you, don’t think like you, don’t pray like you.” 
The Jewish Atlantan and founder of Etgar 36: An American Journey often repeated that directive to his 39 charges from Portland during their recent three-day civil rights trip. The trip began in Atlanta, Ga., and continued across the state line to Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham, Ala. The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church co-organized the late-April sojourn. 
Organizers Bob Horenstein, Rachel Nelson and Pastor J.W. Matthew Hennessee didn’t write Billy’s script. But tour participants expressed before and during the trip exactly what Billy preached.
“Break down barriers,” Billy said, “so that the ‘other’ becomes just ‘an-other.’”
Said Pastor Hennessee, “What we need in this country and in this world is healing and coming together.”
Billed as the Portland JCRC Civil Rights Journey, the Federation and Vancouver Avenue originally organized the trip to occur in spring 2020, but a certain virus got in the way and shut it down. More than two challenging years later and a mere week after the mask mandate in airports and on most airlines was lifted, the organizers and energized trip goers from ages 8 to 80 began their self-funded journey through history and a lot of self-reflection. 
Roughly half the group was from the Jewish community; others were affiliated with Vancouver Avenue or were Portlanders of color interested in social justice issues.
Daryl Stewman, 52, is the only Black teacher at Southridge High School. Previously a salesman for a hydraulics company, he returned to school and earned his master’s in education from Portland State University, desiring to connect with and teach history to high schoolers. 
“I couldn’t think of a more valuable trip that I could take to give back to my students in the classroom and to myself and my family,” said Daryl, the father of two adult children and the stepfather of four younger kids.
Sarah Blattner, 51, a Southridge High School language arts teacher and colleague of Daryl’s, knows her way around the South. Having lived in Baltimore, Md., and Atlanta itself, she went on the trip to see a once-familiar region through Pacific Northwest eyes and return to Portland with greater insights to share with fellow educators in a group she leads at the high school, Building Anti-racist White Educators.
Sarah expressed what some on the trip considered an uncomfortable truth: Jews, at the dawn of the United States, owned and profited from slaves and the slave trade. 
Other discoveries were poignantly displayed at the Montgomery-based National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Both exist because of lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and his decades of work to reverse racially motivated injustices writ large via Alabama’s prison system. His 2014 book, Just Mercy, became an award-winning movie in late-2019. 
The Legacy Museum includes among its exhibits a digital schematic that delineates and differentiates the international slave trade from the domestic slave trade. The latter ensued primarily from 1808 to 1865. 
“Jewish people also are responsible for slavery. We benefited from slave labor,” said Sarah. “And it’s complex, because we, too, were slaves,” she said of Jews’ lengthy period as slaves in ancient Egypt versus the New World slave trade that began in the 1500s and the aftermath of the institution of slavery to which we all still bear witness.
“Our history is one of persecution,” she continued, “but we’re not living day-to-day in the shadow of Jim Crow.”
As Twauna Henneessee, 52, the pastor’s wife, put it, “We can’t give up our Blackness, and I don’t want to. Any time we step into a room – bam!” she said of always presenting as the descendants of slaves and simultaneously as those among America’s most persecuted. 
Fellow church member Laquila A Hobson, 63, added, “Going on this trip makes you think in a different way, because it’s one thing to go by yourself but then (to be) in an environment with others, we may look at the same thing but from a different perspective.” 
Marni Glick and her husband, Hank Kaplan, who is a longtime member of the JCRC and is its incoming chair, expressed a similar opinion. Said Marni, 65, “I would have felt insulated on a solely Jewish trip.” 
Hank, 66, the son of Holocaust survivors, added he was attracted to this joint Jewish-Black civil rights trip because witnessing history through the eyes of victims deepens the meaning of sites and experiences. Years ago, he visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem with Jews who held only a tenuous grasp of the Holocaust. His presence and perspective as a second-generation survivor made that trip more meaningful for everyone. 
Similarly, the civil rights trip was more meaningful for him, because he shared it with those who have a direct, palpable experience of discrimination and oppression. 
“White Jews have the option to hide that Blacks don’t have, and the need to hide indicates an illness in our society. Hiding is only a strategy to avoid confronting hate,” Hank said.
Tour participants were acutely aware of rising rates of antisemitism internationally, in the South and in our region in the West. 
Miles Rowe Pendleton, 23, is president of the NAACP Eugene Springfield. A 2021 University of Miami graduate (with four majors, including Africana Studies and Criminology), Miles had joined his campus Hillel on a trip to Israel, where he’d learned more than he previously knew about the Jewish people, Judaism and the contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict, always with an eye toward learning how to mediate and work through the thorniest of issues.
Miles walked away from that trip with a greater understanding of Black-Jewish civil rights work, and he more recently endeavored to connect with the JCRC, which was his entrée to this trip. Miles is inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach to what he calls the ongoing, redemptive work everyone should engage in to “to redeem the soul of the nation” through “a coalition of people working together.”
“We stand against bigotry in all forms,” said Miles, who identifies himself as biracial with a German mother and South Carolinian father. “This trip won’t give us all or any answers. But it does ground us in where we’ve been and where we can go to effect real change.”
Blacks and Jews, he said, “are more the same than distinct” and can find agreement on some issues while disagreeing on others. Reflecting on viewing the Atlanta-based elevated tombs of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, in the National Historical Park, Miles echoed a line of Billy’s, the tour founder and guide: “People are not other, but an-other.”
Leslie Warren, 50, who is Black and also of Japanese and Native American descent, needed little reminder of the phrase. She is on the board of Western States Center, a Portland-based, racial-justice nonprofit whose executive director is Black activist, thinker and writer Eric Ward. In addition to her day job as an independent financial advisor, Leslie is part of a WSC team working “intentionally,” she said, to strengthen the Black and Jewish relationship. 
The two communities have “a deep-rooted relationship that most people aren’t aware of. A lot of change can happen with those two communities coming together again in a meaningful way, as we have seen throughout history,” she said pointedly. 
Group members talked frequently to each other throughout the trip – on the bus, at meals, at powerful historically significant sites – about active next steps in the name of furthering the aims of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Ideas spanned creating scholarships, getting more involved in voters’ rights work to stem the tide of ongoing voter-suppression legislation, sharing trip experiences with friends, families, boards, elected officials and much more.
Said Marni of the trip: “This challenges me a little more, and I’m looking forward to conversations.” 
Tour leader Billy urged the group to continue to reflect on the work and legacy of civil rights-era giants who are familiar – John Lewis, Malcolm X, the Kings, Rosa Parks, Emmett Till and his mother – and those who are largely unknown. 
They include activist Joanne Bland, 70, who was jailed as young as age 8 in poverty-stricken Selma, Ala., when she stepped up to fight for her elders’ right to vote; Bishop Calvin Wallace Woods Sr., 88, a contemporary of King and fellow activist who drove King to the Birmingham, Ala., airport before his fateful trip to Memphis, where the legend was assassinated; and the 4,400 Black people – many whose names will never be known – lynched in 800 counties around the country only because of the color of their skin.
Billy left the group with a number of thought-provoking statements for continued reflection, including this question for the 39 of us: “What is it you’re willing to live for so when it’s your turn not to be here anymore, groups can hear your story?”

At the Birmingham (Ala.) Civil Rights Institute this hand-written note demonstrates that Jews often were publicly hated right alongside their Black counterparts. In 1899, Louis Pizitz and family founded a dry goods store that eventually became a department store; the company hired many Black employees despite negative public opinion.


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