It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt

Montgomery Trip leaders house

Jewish Federation’s Rabbinic and communal Leaders Mission visit Harris House in Montgomery, AL, the Safe House for the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Exodus 13:8
“And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
Terry Chestnut SelmaTuesday, we spent the day in Selma. Terry Chestnut guided us through landmarks and neighborhoods, giving testimony and sharing stories of the relationships, woven like a hammock, that hold him still today. His father was J.L. Chestnut, Jr, the first Black lawyer in Selma, who represented Dr. Martin Luther King and was a key figure in the Civil Rights movement, fighting for voting rights and pursuing justice for Black farmers. Terry tells us about his father’s brilliant mind and his musical gifts. Terry shares how he was there with his father on Bloody Sunday, a six year old boy. The violence he witnessed on that day shakes him still. Terry led us across the Edmund Pettus bridgeSunset Pettus Bridge at sunset – following the path of those who prayed with their feet, who lifted up their voices and put their bodies on the line for freedom and justice.
Ronnie Leet took us through his synagogue in Selma, Mishkan Israel, where his grandparents and parents found solace and safety and community after immigrating from Eastern Europe. Though there are only three local members of the synagogue in Selma, there is a large extended family and Ronnie is working tirelessly to preserve the building and keep the stories alive. While we walked through the sanctuary, men drilled on the roof to repair damage from the tornado that ripped through Selma just a few weeks ago. It is a miracle, Terry told us, that no one died.
In Montgomery, Dr. Valda Harris opened up her home to us, following in her parents’ footsteps. The Harris House was the Safe House for the Freedom Riders, where they enjoyed her mother Vera’s famous spaghetti in the wood-paneled kitchen and where they had strategic conversations to move the movement forward. Her father, Dr. Richard Harris, Jr. owned and operated Dean Drug Store, Montgomery’s oldest Black drug store. A year and a half ago, the home became a museum where Valda keeps alive the sacred stories of her parents’ legacy and the rich history of the Centennial Hill neighborhood.
We sat with the Rev. Dr. Carolyn McKinistry in Birmingham at the HistoricCarolyn McKinistry 16th Church
16th Street Church, where she is the first female president of the board, where she survived the horrific bombing on September 15th 1963 and grieved the loss of her four friends, Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11). She couldn’t talk about it for 25 years. Nobody talked about it in the community. It hurt too much. There is a statue of the girls in the park across from the church. Dr. McKinistry remembered sitting in the pews preparing for the Children’s March the spring before, how she and her friends sang to God and pledged to pray for the success of the movement.
Our Torah teaches that our memories are meant to be alive. We speak them and sing them and ritualize them. We taste them and feel them. We walk with them and tell them to the next generation. I am grateful for the profound blessing of hearing testimony on holy ground.