Journey to Alabama with The Compassionate Listening Project

by Joel Berman, Compassionate Listening Facilitator and Journey

For eight days in January 2020, The Compassionate Listening Project took 24 participants on a journey to the Deep South. Our purpose was three-fold: to build skills of deep, empathic listening, even in difficult conversations; to explore our own biases, conscious and unconscious; and to offer the healing practice of Compassionate Listening.   Although the Project has been conducting visits to international hot spots since 1991, this was its first domestic initiative. What follows are selected posts from the author’s daily journal. 

January 4, 2020

Yesterday’s visit to the Dexter Street King Memorial Church in Montgomery was powerful, as I expected, but not in the way I expected. The visit gave new meaning to the phrase audacious hospitality. The rib-crunching bear hugs of Miss Wanda, Miss Elizabeth, and several others as we entered the church opened a door to what felt like holy ground. Two months ago, I visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall, which evoked not holiness but strife and division - between Jews and Muslims, between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, between men and women. It felt like a wall of separation, enmity, hatred, tribalism, intractability, and futility. I felt no calling to insert a prayer between the stones. As the joke goes, it would feel like talking to a f***ing wall.

The Dexter Street King Memorial Church felt like my Western Wall, my Temple Mount, a place on earth that touches another world; that evokes awe, reverence, grace, humility, and inspiration. Its spiritual fundament is pure and unassailable: unconditional love fused with unwavering steadfastness. Those concepts arrived with new meaning yesterday. It was an immersion, a baptismal.  I found myself looking for a space between the bricks to insert a prayer for me and the world.

We were in the only church that MLK served (I hadn’t known that), standing around his pulpit, touching his office desk, singing We Shall Overcome as fellow traveller Ted Johnson accompanied us on the church’s piano. I shivered. 

As Miss Wanda related the history of the church, her voice rang out like a clarion. She seems a conduit for a message that comes from beyond her. I want everyone I know to come here and meet Miss Wanda!

Yesterday feels like a visceral affirmation that the way forward is through a fusion of courageous activism and fearless love.

January 5

Yesterday I began the hard introspective work of exploring my personal story within our national story of racism. The day began at Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial Center, where we met our guide Miss Angie,

another charismatic and abundantly gifted

black woman with a sassy sense of humor and an endless supply of pithy aphorisms. Angie surprised me by saying that in Alabama, this is the best of times. She loves living in Montgomery. Where else can she meet civil rights icons on the street? This is the New South, she told us. She wants people to come here and discover that “Alabama isn’t just about hate and football”. 

Here are some encouraging things I learned:

The State of Alabama has mandated that all public school 4th graders visit the Civil Rights Memorial Center so they can learn about Alabama’s racist history when they’re still at a malleable age. Sometimes at the end of tours, white students, including those brought under protest by their white supremacist parents, have hugged Angie and apologized for all the bad things white people have done to black people. 

George Wallace, the epitome of white racist power, became an ardent supporter of civil rights in his later years and received 90% of the black vote in his final gubernatorial campaign. How did I not know that? Did you know that?

Here are some horrifying things I learned:

The Constitution of the State of Alabama still mandates “separate schools for white and colored children”. In 2004 and 2012, efforts to remove that language through a statewide referendum failed. 

De facto school segregation is alive and well in Alabama. Due to the proliferation of private white schools, 95% of Montgomery’s public schools are all black.

The US incarceration rate, the highest in the world, is five times that of Great Britain and even higher than rates in Russia and China. 

Although black males comprise 14% of the US population, they account for 37% of the male prison population.

Rates of black incarceration increased nearly an order of magnitude during and after Nixon’s War on Drugs, which was fueled by false predictions of the emergence of superpredator black youth. John Erlichmann subsequently admitted the racist basis of those policies. How did I not know that?

How is it that I haven’t understood the full import of the new Jim Crow? Convict leasing? School-to-prison pipelines?