From Shari Garelick Berman on our Women’s Philanthropy Mission to Memphis
More than three years ago I was asked if I would co-chair a Women’s Philanthropy Mission to Memphis, originally scheduled for April 2020. On March 27, 2022 we finally landed in Memphis to officially start our journey – The Soundtrack of a Revolution: Civil Rights and the Creation of Rock n’ Roll. We hit the ground running with a fabulous group of women. I had the pleasure of working with, and traveling with, a wonderful co-chair, Eileen Isbitts Weiss, as well as lay leaders and three past presidents of Women’s Philanthropy, Mimi Heyman, Jody Hurwitz Caplan and Michele Cohen Landau.
This was my first Federation mission, and it did not disappoint! Here’s a sample of some of the amazing people we met and things we learned and did.
On our first day we met Michele Shipper, Chief Executive Offficer, Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), who shared with us how the ISJL supports, connects, and celebrates Jewish life in the South. We enjoyed a delicious Southern dinner and received an introduction to the evolution of rock n’ roll, complete with music that had many of us dancing in our seats.
Our second day started with meeting a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). He shared his story of being raised in a very dysfunctional family where he was abused by both his father and a sibling. How, as a teen, after searching for a family and place to belong, he sought out involvement in the KKK. And, finally, how he left that life behind and now talks people out of a life of hate. He shared his background as an explanation for his past, not an excuse, and he accepts full responsibility for the unfortunate choices he made. His story and his way out of a life of hatred is owed in significant part to two African American men he encountered at different points of his journey. This was an experience I’ll never forget and, interestingly, it gave me hope for those who spew hatred today.
After this meeting, we headed to the Mid-South Food Bank Project and had the opportunity as a group to sort and organize donated food. Collectively, the women from our Federation of Greater MetroWest brought gift cards to donate to the Mid-South Food Bank Project. From there we visited the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the former Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. There we were greeted by Rabbi Micah Greenstein, Senior Rabbi of Memphis’ Temple Israel (the synagogue he has been at for the last 30 years), whose enthusiasm and love for the city of Memphis and his synagogue was contagious. He provided us a frame of reference for our time spent touring the Civil Rights Museum, pointing out specific exhibits and facts to notice as we went through the museum at our own pace.
It was a long and eventful day exploring the city of Memphis – and the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., followed by dinner then music and cocktails on Beale Street.
“The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible.” –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech
On the third day we learned about the history of the once strong and vibrant historic McLemore neighborhood and about the modern issue of poverty in Memphis, one of the poorest major cities in America and about how Stax Studios is making a difference in this neighborhood by supporting charter schools that are giving students a chance to dream big and go to college. The Soulsville Charter School is a public charter school where 100% of graduating seniors to date have been accepted to 2- and 4-year colleges and all students are receiving support along their post-secondary pathway from an alumni counselor.
Despite racial tensions brewing in Memphis at the time, our group was inspired by how Stax Studios had always been integrated; a group of like-minded people creating music and growing a business through community, collaboration, and skill, regardless of skin color.
Additional stops that day included the Center for Southern Folklore (CSF) where we listened and were inspired by Laura Linder, President & CEO, Jewish Community Partners (the umbrella organization for the Memphis Jewish Federation and the Jewish Foundation of Memphis). Then it was time to depart for Graceland, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006, followed by a stop at the legendary Sun Studio, which gave notable musicians such as Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash their first recording contracts.
On our final day we headed to the I AM A MAN monument next to Clayborn Temple, a key rallying point for the historic 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. The monument features a large sculpture of the “I AM A MAN” slogan and a wall with the names of the 1,300 strikers. There, we met Elmore Nickleberry, one of the I AM A MAN protesters and workers. Mr. Nickleberry, 90, is one of the hundreds of black sanitation workers who fought for equality, better pay, and safer working conditions. He spoke about the terrible conditions, but the kindness some on his route have displayed through the years, and he proudly shared that all six of his children graduated from college. When asked what his secret to a long life was, he said, “Treat people like you want to be treated.”
Memphis is a warm and welcoming city with an incredible history, music, BBQ, and loads of Southern hospitality.
I’m so grateful to the wonderful Women’s Philanthropy team I was able to work with planning this Mission, Diane Bakst, Susan Ferber Marcy Frank Fink, Heidi Kuperman, my co-chair Eileen, the fabulous women who joined us, and our wonderful guides.
I can’t wait for my next Federation Mission!