On July 11, I was frustrated, discouraged and angry with myself. I was six days into my Civil Rights Journey with Operation Understanding DC, and I still hadn't had the life-changing experience that alumni of Operation Understanding DC promised me. Our month-long trek through New York and the South, during which we visited civil rights landmarks, taking lessons from the past in order to work for a better future, had not yet accomplished its mission.
On day six of our trip, we visited Greensboro, N.C., the site of the first organized sit-in at Woolworth's variety store. As we stood before the spot where four young men, then only a year-and-a-half older than we are now, risked their lives to be served a sandwich, I found myself thinking that there's really nothing in my own life that I feel passionate enough about for which to sacrifice myself.
That night, I wrote in my journal: "Sure, I've had a protected life, and my only real minority status [as a Jew] doesn't really apply in Chevy Chase, but I still feel like I should have a fraction of the passion these men felt in my own life. There are things I care about, but how far would I take them? Would I even try to make a change? Isn't that what I'm supposed to be learning in OUDC?"
Three weeks later, I can say confidently that OUDC has inspired my 28 classmates and me to stand up for what we believe in and to teach others to do the same.
The Civil Rights Journey brought these history lessons to life; visiting sites and talking to people we had read about in textbooks helped us to identify the problems that still exist in our own communities and inspired us to produce change in the world in which we live. This fall, we embark upon the third part of the program. By giving speeches and facilitating workshops at our schools and places of worship, we hope to empower our peers to challenge their own stereotypes and join us in the fight for social justice.
So what exactly did I learn this summer? In the weeks that followed our visit to Greensboro, we visited 13 more cities and towns, drove across five states, stood before countless historical sites and talked to many ordinary people who, through their heroic actions, became extraordinary in my eyes.
One of these people was B.B. DeLaine, who, as a teenager during the civil rights movement, risked his life as one of the many young people who participated in the movement. Mr. DeLaine was the first of many speakers to impress upon us that though his generation had worked, they simply had not come far enough. Education gaps and self-segregation, among many other problems, still exist. The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s was primarily a youth-led movement, and it is up to today's youths to continue on the path started by Mr. DeLaine and his peers. After hearing his story and his challenge to us to help, I felt as if I would personally let him down if I failed to do so.
In the Mississippi Delta, we visited several small-town synagogues and were saddened to learn that many Jewish communities in the South have a dozen members or fewer, the youngest of whom may be in his or her fifties. Living in Washington, it is difficult to imagine being the only Jew in my town or attending services where there is not even a rabbi.
Seeing synagogues being turned into museums in preparation for the not-so-distant time when there will no longer be members to fill the pews was sad. So we were heartened to find young members of the Southern Jewish community at the Henry S. Jacobs camp in Utica, Miss., who are committed to Judaism even if they are the only Jews in their town.
This summer, I learned that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Although in school we generally learn that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were responsible for the events of the civil rights era, the truth is, without the powerful grass-roots movements in small-town America, no real change could ever have been made.
I learned that while the era known as the civil rights movement is over, the struggle for civil rights still has far to go, and it is up to my generation to continue the fight. Which brings me to the most important lesson I learned from my incredible summer: As cliched as it might sound, we, as teenagers, really are the future.
My fairly cynical self once was inclined to brush off that idea, to doubt that I, as an individual, could have any real impact on the world around me. Yet people like B.B. DeLaine and the Greensboro Four were teenagers just like me when they risked their lives for a cause about which they were passionate. I now feel empowered to take on similar causes, such as combating self-segregation at my school.
Joanne Bland, who as a 9-year-old faced the tear gas and [police] batons on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and now runs the National Voting Rights Museum, told us each to pick up a rock from the back yard of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, in Selma, Ala., where the crowd had congregated before embarking on the march. That rock, she told us, had been stepped upon by Martin Luther King and many other heroes of the time. We were holding one of the footprints of freedom.
Put that rock somewhere where you will see it every day, she told us, and when you look upon it, "you'd better get off your butt and do something about it."