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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? 

How is it that I, a doctor, didn’t know that the “father of modern gynecology”, J. Marion Sims, perfected his surgical techniques by operating without anesthesia on enslaved black women, and that his statue still stands on the Alabama State Capitol grounds?

Because for the last 45 years, Joel, you haven’t been paying attention.

Every morning when I open the newspaper and survey the day’s top stories, topics like black incarceration don’t make it to my list of must-reads - partly because such subjects are far removed from daily life in my comfortable Concord cocoon, and partly because I’ve chosen not to care.

The extent to which I’ve limited my learning about ongoing institutional racism became clear during our Saturday afternoon visits to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. Those places affected me as powerfully as my visits to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem - ed). Surrounded by the high cement walls of the National Memorial, walking among lifesize sculptures of humans with barbed chains around their ankles and necks, I began feeling as if I were encased in concrete. As I walked the Memorial’s downsloping path among the rows of suspended lynching monuments, they rose above me as if the victims’ spirits were ascending to heaven and I was going to hell for my decades of silent inertial complicity.

I find myself comparing this journey with my Compassionate Listening trips to Israel-Palestine. Although there’s nothing morally complicated about Israel’s occupation and creeping annexation of the West Bank - it’s profoundly wrong, pure and simple - there’s much about the Israel-Palestine conflict that is complicated. Regardless of which side you’re on, you can’t deny that it’s a clash of competing victimologies. There's no way to see America’s racist history as anything other than a narrative of oppressor vs. oppressed. There’s no uncertainty about the immorality of the continued subjugation, segregation, and disempowerment of people of color. As much as I care about Israel-Palestine, working for civil rights in my own country must be my primary political priority. 

How will I fulfill the pledge I took two days ago when I entered my name on the Civil Rights Memorial Center’s Wall of Tolerance?

“By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights - the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.”

January 7

Yesterday morning in Selma, we had coffee at the Downtowner Restaurant with a man named Leonard and several of his buddies who meet every morning to shoot the s***. Leonard is a white man in his 70’s who cheered on the state troopers fifty-five years ago on Bloody Sunday as they brutalized the civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Yesterday afternoon at Brown Chapel AME Church, we listened to Dianne, a black woman who was on the receiving end of that brutality, barely making it back to the safety of Brown Chapel a few footsteps ahead of the charging troopers’ horses. 

To my astonishment, I recognized humanity in both the oppressor and the oppressed! That happened in part because Dianne taught us by example. She’s yet another fiercely resilient black woman who refuses to hate her oppressors. 

And it happened in part because Compassionate Listening gives us a way to listen deeply to those we consider our enemy. 

We learned that despite their vast ideological differences, Leonard’s gang and Dianne and her freedom-fighting warriors share some values: love for their land, deep devotion to their communities, and the guiding light of their religious convictions. Inconceivable as it may seem for those who weren’t with us, we came to recognize that both Leonard and Dianne have suffered, albeit their suffering has been vastly disproportionate.

Dianne’s suffering is visible to anyone who hears her story. It has forged her character. It’s embedded in who she is. 

Leonard’s suffering simmers silently under the surface. When asked about his take on Bloody Sunday, his first response was “You don’t want to hear what I think.” When we assured him that we did, he told us that his grandfather, a gentle and non-confrontational soul, was mistakenly depicted on the cover of Look magazine as the face of white Southern brutality. For Leonard, Bloody Sunday was the day the liberal press assassinated his grandfather’s character. Leonard has carried that unhealed wound for the last fifty-five years. 

At the end of the day, I was grateful to have witnessed such diametrically different viewpoints. Of the many tour groups who come this way, I’m aware of no others that offer a lens through which to see the humanity of everyone we’re meeting. The discipline of Compassionate Listening allows speakers to feel so deeply heard and authentically appreciated that at the end of listening sessions, their eyes are moist, their hearts are open, and they want to know more about who we are and why we came.

Leah Green, founder of The Compassionate Listening Project, recently stated: 

Yes, this is an important time of “calling out” the isms and stepping forward as allies, but it’s equally important...that we “call in” compassion as the very ground that we stand on to do this hard work of unpacking and healing eons of pain, abuse, domination, genocide, and slavery - otherwise it’s just about changing who’s on top, [which] perpetuates the dominator model rather than heals it.  

Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson has written:

When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can't otherwise see; you hear things you can't otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

January 10

Whether by coincidence or grand design, our journey was bookended by this quote from MLK’s I Have a Dream speech:



We encountered it on Day 2 at Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial Center, where it’s etched in the granite waterfall of Maya Lin’s memorial to civil rights martyrs.

We read it again on day 8 at the King National Historic Park in Atlanta, where it’s inscribed in the waterfall above MLK’s tomb. The symmetry of the experiences is striking. 

The water soothes me and the words galvanize me. Together they soften the sharp edges of my self-judgment and invite me to consider how I’ll fulfill the pledge I took a week ago at the Civil Rights Memorial Center’s Wall of Tolerance: 

I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights - the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.

Our journey was also bookended by We Shall Overcome, which we sang on Day 1 at Montgomery’s Dexter Street King Memorial Church and at last night’s closing circle. Awakening this morning with the song still in my head, it occurred to me that the lyrics recall the profound lessons we learned from Miss Wanda, Miss Angie, Dianne, and others

about community

We’ll walk hand in hand…

and courage

We are not afraid…

and faith 

God will see us through...


Going forward, I expect I’ll sing We Shall Overcome with a presence and appreciation I've never had before.

Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation. 

~ Coretta Scott King

The Compassionate Listening Project will offer its second Journey to the Heart of Alabama in October, 2022:

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