My name is Zoe Kurtz, and I am currently a sophomore at Elon University. I recently returned from a nine-day class trip around Atlanta and Alabama. I wrote this piece after I was inspired to spread the word on what I had seen and heard on my journey. I think that it speaks to Jewish values and where we are as a society.
It only seems fitting that as I conclude my journey across the South, delving deep into the history of civil rights, leadership and non-violent protest, it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
For the past nine days, I have heard from those who marched by Dr. King, grew up with him and were inspired by him. I have heard firsthand the struggles, the persecution and the heartbreaking stories that have changed my life forever.
Through my winter term course, Disarming Injustice, I have been motivated to create positive change, fight for those who do not have a voice, and find hidden love wherever I go. My eyes have been opened to how much we as a society have overcome, but how we still have so much to battle. I have learned that there is a difference between equal and equality, and that talking about the uncomfortable things is the only way we, as a society, can grow and come together at the same time. But, most importantly, I have been surrounded by more love than I have ever seen before.
In these past days, my group of 30 students traveled throughout Birmingham, Ala.; Selma; Montgomery; and Atlanta. We visited the churches where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his first and last sermons. We saw the true faces of the civil rights movement when we met those who never got acknowledgement for risking their lives, who shared with us their families’ stories.
I have come to learn that it is the people we see every day, behind the scenes, that have perhaps the most profound impact. From teachers, nurses, workers and drivers, we could not get to where we are without them.
Each of us has a responsibility to make the world a better place than how we found it. This is a Jewish value I hold close to my heart, tikkun olam, to repair the world. Each of us are guilty for taking for granted the privileges we have, and the struggles people have fought and died for. We must work together as a collective, instead of living and assuming we are all better off separate. We must remember the pillars upon which this country is based, We the People.
Throughout my entire journey, I continually asked myself if there was anything or anyone that I would be willing to risk my life for. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many of the other courageous leaders of the movement were around our age.
They were college students. Teenagers. Young adults. All passionate and willing to risk everything, as many of them did.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
On this trip, I was lucky enough to meet Joyce O’Neil, one of the most powerful and inspirational women I have ever encountered. We met at Brown Chapel, one of the important meeting grounds during the civil rights movement. Mass meetings during this time were jubilant, full of life and filled with songs, and inspired a feeling of hope and love that many struggled to find anywhere else. Bloody Sunday began from the steps of the Brown Chapel, and Joyce O’Neil herself was there that day. She spoke to our group, and her words about finding one’s truth, no matter your age, resonated in my ears and my soul.
She said, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you you are too young or that you do not have anything to contribute. Find a cause. When you speak your truth, make sure you do not accept the things people tell you that you know are wrong. Always speak truth to power.” One of her favorite memories was when people who did not look like her came to help. It gave her hope in humanity, making her believe that there are people that do care.
In the past nine days, I have cried from sadness, and cried from joy. I have frowned from dismay and smiled from hope. I have been exposed to the past, the present, and the future. I have seen where we have been, and where we need to go.
There were many nights where I was so emotionally exhausted and upset from what we had seen and heard, but when I remembered the stories of hope, I was lifted up. I have never felt more accepted from people whom I have never met before. People who had no reason to show me love but gave it to me anyway. People who hugged me, held my hand, and told me they were so happy to have me in their home.
The only way up is to come together, to understand that people are people, and to celebrate love. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
Zoe Kurtz is a strategic communications major minoring in leadership and political science at Elon University in North Carolina, where she’s from. She is public relations chair of Hillel and treasurer of the Israel Education club on campus.