Just before Martin Luther King Day, longtime Westport resident and superb photographer Tom Kretsch and his wife Sandi joined a trip to the South, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Fairfield County.
The group — which included other Westporters, and Shirah Lpson Sklar (a Staples graduate, the new senior rabbi at Norwalk’s Temple Shalom) — traveled to places crucial to the civil rights movement, like Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham.
When Tom returned, he wrote a “Letter to Dr. King.” Today he shares it — and several powerful photos he took — with “06880” readers.
We want to let you know what an incredible journey we have just completed. We think it would make you happy to know 50 of us had traveled on this powerful Civil Rights Mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Fairfield County, following in your footsteps on the roads you traveled for justice.
It is like we stepped back in time, reliving so much of the history that was part of our early 20s. Sadly, I remember being in the Peace Corps in South America and learning of your assassination on BBC Radio. I could hardly believe this had happened to you, shortly after the same fate came to Robert Kennedy. Sandi remembered all the lessons she had taught her kindergarten students about your efforts to create a more just world, and the struggle for freedom for all.
Our journey started at your favorite church: Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. We attended Sunday Service, with the Reverend Raphael Warnock preaching. We heard the choir’s soulful voices, saw him hold up little babies who had come to service and heard how he so skillfully weaved some of the political discourse into the meaning of the gospel of Luke, even touching on the recent injury to Damar Hamlin and the teamwork of the responders.
His message, like yours, was that life should be more about the “us” and less about the “me.” You would have loved how enthusiastic the worshipers were as they responded to his messages. He is now also Senator Warnock from Georgia. I don’t think you could have imagined that happening, but oh how sweet it is!
Your old friend Andrew Young spoke with us outside the church. You remember how hard he worked with you for civil rights, and became US Ambassador to the United Nations under President Carter. We couldn’t believe we were able to meet with this radiant man, who like yourself worked so hard for freedom for all.
On to Montgomery our bus rolled. Under gray skies we pulled into the grounds of the Equal Justice Memorial to Peace and Justice. You would be so proud of the work of Bryan Stevenson, who initiated this idea. He has dedicated his life to working to exonerate people unjustly imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. He is our hero!
This memorial he helped create is one of the most provocative things we have ever seen. It is dedicated to the 4,000 or more African Americans lynched during the Jim Crow Era. It is hard to comprehend the depravity of people and what went on during this time in our nation’s history. For Bryan to have envisioned this place is remarkable. Walking through and seeing the iron cross-like stations from different counties in the South, with the names of people who were hanged, tears the heart. Every American should visit this shrine.
The Legacy Museum tracing the history of slavery in our country was equally powerful. As we entered we saw ocean water moving against glass, and imagined a slave ship traveling from Africa. The next station shows clay-like sculptures of slaves who didn’t make it, resting on the bottom of the sea.
The exhibits are interactive. We talked to slaves, and found out what life was really like in those dreadful times, in truthful, honest depictions of some of our history.
At the end of the museum is a beautiful gallery of African American art, and a hall with 800 photographs of African Americans who made contributions to this country. Some we never knew about.
We needed more time at each place, but the journey continued the next morning with a visit to the Rosa Parks Museum. What a brave woman! Her actions began the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted 380 days. What hardships it put upon the African American community. They organized ingenious ways of getting to work, around the obstacles created by authorities to negate their strike. Your support, Martin, kept their eye on the prize.
We headed to Selma, taking the route that the famous march to Montgomery followed, on a lonely road where the marchers stopped to rest. We learned about the only white woman, Viola Liuzzo from Detroit, a mother of 5, who came down to help and was killed by the Klan while transporting protestors to the airport.
Here we met Lynda Blackmon Lowery, who at age 15 participated in the marches and strikes for equal rights. We learned how children did much of the marching, as adults feared being arrested and losing their jobs. Hearing words from people who lived through these experiences is so powerful.
Then the 50 of us stood by the Edmund Pettus Bridge, were led in prayer by several of the rabbis that made the trip, and walked across this iconic structure. There were no troopers with billy clubs, barking dogs, fire hoses, tear gas canasters and people waving Confederate flags.
We were honored to make the walk in memory of those who did, including the late John Lewis. After Bloody Sunday they reassembled with you and made the 50-mile journey to Montgomery, which precipitated the passing of the Voting Rights Act.
I am sure you remember your friend Bishop Calvin Wallace Woods who we met in Kelly Ingram Park, next to the 16th Street Baptist Church. There those 4 little girls were killed one Sunday, when the Klu Klux Klan planted dynamite in the church.
The Bishop, a spry 89-year-old, was full of joy and spirit. He talked, danced, sang and filled our hearts with his memories of those turbulent days in Birmingham, maybe the most violent city in the struggle for justice. It was called Bombingham for good reasons.
So Martin, here we are at the end of this moving journey of reliving our history. We learned so much.
Where do we go from here? This group of people who traveled together became so energized by this experience. Such a joyful gathering of people who came to learn, reflect, and commit to being part of this journey of making a difference.
There is the big picture of supporting causes that are committed to finding justice for all. Bryan Stevenson said it best: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
There are still so many injustices in health, housing, job opportunities, and making sure that everyone has the right to vote. In our own state of Connecticut we see the challenges of creating a fair and equitable education for all, by creating more diverse schools in the inner cities and allowing more students of color to enter suburban schools.
There is the more personal one-on-one commitment we can all make: listening to others who might be different, finding out their needs, and perhaps impacting their life in a positive way. One small step for justice and understanding.
Through the images and information collected on this journey we can hopefully share this story of our nation’s history with students in nearby communities. Your birthday is a holiday now, but your work should continue throughout the year.
I hope you enjoyed our letter, Martin. We have been deeply nourished by this journey. I will share it with others. Perhaps it will light a spark and encourage them to make a similar journey of learning, reflecting and growing.
Tom and Sandi Kretsch