You might find them in some corner of the Deep South through the month of July. They could be crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma or talking to some Holocaust survivors.
They are 23 African-American and Jewish high school students from all over the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, and they are taking part in the Operation Understanding DC program.
Since January, their schedules have been full of workshops and presentations. However, the cornerstone of OUDC is a “transformational” summer journey where students get a deep understanding of African-American and Jewish experiences in American culture by visiting scenes of past struggles in New York and throughout the Deep South.
Birmingham happened to be one of the stops of their journey, which will cover nine states and 19 cities in three-and-a-half weeks. While here on July 18, they talked with Shelley Stewart, radio personality, businessman, founder of the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation and a direct witness and participant of the civil rights movement.
Dr. Stewart met them at the foundation’s headquarters in Birmingham and told them about overcoming past and current racism and the importance of unity in America.
“I shared with these kids that, to me, it was not about ‘civil rights,’ it was all about ‘human rights’,” Stewart said. “People have to come together as people; we have to come together as Americans. I think the key for this is education, and relationship building. That’s what I tried to share with them.”
The message seemed to reach the students, who, according to Stewart, “left the building saying they were going to help make a better America.”
That is actually the ultimate goal of the OUDC program, whose mission, as stated on their website, “is to build a generation of African-American and Jewish community leaders who promote respect, understanding and cooperation while working to eradicate racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination.”
Since the program was founded in 1993, more than 500 students have taken part. It is funded by private donations and free for the students.
At the end of the meeting with Stewart, the teenagers hugged him, some of them in tears, touched by the story of his life.
As many who know Stewart are aware, he didn’t have an easy life. At the age of six, he witnessed his father murdering his mother. Abused by his father, who was never convicted for the murder of his wife, Stewart ended up living on the streets of Birmingham.
“I walked five miles to school everyday,” Stewart recalls. “One day, a gentleman who always saw me walking came to me and said: ‘If you want to go to school that bad, I’ll let you stay in the basement of my house.’
“I took him up on it, and after three months in that basement, I was invited to come upstairs and sit with the family to eat.
“At that time I started living two lives in Birmingham: I lived with a white family and I was told that I was a human being, and not to accept being inferior, not to be afraid of a person with white skin; whereas in the colored community I was told that all white folks were bad.”
A strong believer in education and its ability to help overcome obstacles, Stewart ended up being a successful businessman, a well known personality in Birmingham and a station owner. His Mattie C. Stewart Foundation is a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing the dropout rate. It is headquartered in Birmingham, and his primary corporate partner is O2ideas, Stewart’s advertising and public relations company.
“We founded O2ideas 48 years ago,” explained Stewart. “This company was founded by a man who happened to be Jewish and a man who was black — which is me. Forty-eight years ago we could not publicly say it, but we came together and did it, and today this company is one of the most respected companies in the United States.”
One of the stories he told, that shocked the students most was the time when the Ku Klux Klan tried to tear down the radio tower Stewart was working on in 1960. “They did it because of my ‘bad habit’ of bringing white people and black people together,” he said.
Stewart contributed to the civil rights movement by using his radio program to pass along information about mass meetings and planned marches, especially during the Children’s Crusade of 1963.
With racial tensions back on the news spotlight recently, Stewart doesn’t believe there has been a regression; he thinks it’s good that we are talking about it.
“I resent being told that we are at a worse place,” he said. “At least we are beginning to talk with each other. We are not going back; we have come a long way. There are people who have fear of doing the right thing; fear of removing barriers. They are afraid of losing their power and money. That is what it is all about.”
While they were in Birmingham, the Operation Understanding DC students also visited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and met Lisa McNair, whose sister Denise McNair was killed when the church was bombed. They visited Kelly Ingram Park, learned about the history of Judaism in Birmingham from Rabbi Jonathan Miller and heard from Anthony Ray Hinton, who was freed last year after spending 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Then the students headed to Montgomery, where their tour continued.
Stewart loved meeting these young people that, in his opinion, bring hope to the country. “We, the older generations, are not talking with each other. But the youngest generations are beginning to talk with each other. It’s about education, really. It’s about relationships. And this young kids are begging for unity, they are begging for a better education system in this country.”