Marching from Selma: John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun, Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma” is a remarkable depiction of a key moment in the civil rights movement, highlighting the strategic savvy, relentless courage, and human frailties of Rev. Martin Luther King, his inner circle of advisors, local grassroots activists, and the many other crusaders who traveled to this rural town to draw attention to the need for a voting rights bill in 1965. Although “Selma” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film, critics are justifiably outraged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ failure to nominate director DuVernay and star David Oyelowo (who plays King) for Oscars.
“Selma” has triggered controversy for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant and occasionally hostile ally of the civil rights movement. That debate is over a contentious sin of commission, but critics could also fault the film for a glaring sin of omission: the absence of identifiable Jews and Jewish clergy – particularly Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – from the film.
As the film reveals, there were actually three marches that began in Selma and were supposed to end in Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, as part of the civil rights movement’s campaign to pressure Johnson and Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The first march began on March 7 with 600 marchers. State troopers and local cops attacked the unarmed marchers with tear gas and billy clubs while the activists were trying to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” ended on the bridge. Two days later, the marchers tried again. The presence of national media intimidated the state troopers, who stepped aside the let them pass, but – as depicted in the film – King, after getting down on his knees to pray, had second thoughts. He turned around the led the marchers back to a church. He later contacted federal officials, demanding that they protect the protesters along the entire march because Alabama Gov. George Wallace refused to do so.
On March 15, President Johnson delivered his most famous speech before a televised joint session of Congress, where he announced that he would introduce a voting rights bill and uttered the phrase “we shall overcome” to declare his solidarity with the civil rights movement. King believed that the momentum had shifted and decided to resume the march. LBJ committed to send in the U.S. Army, the Alabama National Guard (under federal command), federal marshals and the FBI to guarantee the marchers’ safety. The third march began on March 21. They arrived in Montgomery, 54 miles away, three days later and held a huge rally the following day at the State Capitol building.
All the film clips of those events reveal that most of the marchers were African Americans. Director DuVernay was understandably and justifiably making a movie about a movement led and populated primarily by black people. Indeed, we don’t need another film about the civil rights movement – like “Mississippi Burning,” “Ghosts of Mississippi,” and “The Help” – that focuses primarily on white allies and sympathizers.
In addition to King and his wife Coretta, the film portrays many of the movement’s key leaders (John Lewis and Diane Nash of SNCC, Reverend Hosea Williams, James Bevel, Andrew Young, James Orange, Amelia Boynton), the unsung rank-and-file activists (one of them brilliantly played by Oprah Winfrey), King’s sometime rival Malcolm X, several of the movement’s major antagonists (including Sheriff Jim Clark and Gov. George Wallace), and important political allies (including President Johnson and Assistant Attorney General John Doar).
“Selma” does show that the Selma-to-Montgomery march involved a significant number of white supporters. The film also reveals that many white clergy, wearing clerical collars and other religious garb, participated in the Selma events. In one scene, King is seen hugging a Greek Orthodox prelate (surely meant to be Archbishop Iakovos) who made his way to Selma. Another scene shows a group of white segregationist thugs beating and killing James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who came to Selma to join the march.
Rabbis and the Civil Rights Struggle
But missing from the movie is any depiction of even one Jewish rabbi participating in the Selma crusade. Among white activists in the civil rights movement, Jews – secular and religious — were disproportionately involved. But rabbis, mostly from the North and California, were particularly visible because they usually wore yarmulkes at rallies, meetings, and protests. Rabbis were part of the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington (where Rabbi Uri Miller gave the opening prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke prior to King’s “I Have a Dream” oration), and local efforts to integrate schools and challenge racial discrimination in housing. In 1964, King asked his friend Rabbi Israel Dresner of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, New Jersey to recruit other rabbis to participate in a protest campaign in St. Augustine, Florida, a hotbed of segregationist resistance. All 16 rabbis, including Dresner, were arrested for engaging in civil disobedience.
A handful of Southern rabbis participated in the movement, as documented in Mark Bauman and Berkley Kalin’s The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s and Clive Webb’s Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. But most Southern rabbis were reluctant to be too conspicuous in light of Jews’ precarious social position in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Only a handful of Southern Jews were hard-line segregationists. Most Southern Jews were moderates on racial issues and quite a few were liberals. Some were openly supportive of civil rights and many were quietly helpful – for example, by making financial contributions to civil rights organizations.
But many Southern Jews feared that obvious Jewish activism in the movement would trigger a hostile backlash among anti-Semites, including boycotts of Jewish-owned stores and Jewish lawyers and other professionals, and violence targeted at Jewish homes. Many Southern synagogues were bombed during the civil rights movement. In October 1958, for example, segregationists bombed Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, whose Reform rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, was an early and outspoken supporter of racial integration and a friend of Dr. King. This and other violent incidents certainly led many Southern rabbis and congregations to fear it could happen to them if they lent their support to the movement for racial equality.
Most of the rabbis who came to Selma represented Judaism’s Reform wing, the most liberal of the factions within organized Jewry, but a number of rabbis from the more religiously traditional Conservative wing joined them. In addition to Dresner, the marchers included rabbis Maurice Eisendrath (president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), Albert Friedlander (rabbi for Jewish students at Columbia University), Herbert Teitelbaum (who led a congregation in Redwood City, California), Gerald Raiskin (Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, California, Joseph Gumbiner (director of UC-Berkeley’s Hillel), Joseph Weinberg (Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco), Saul Berman (Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel), Mathew Simon (spiritual leader of a Los Angeles congregation), Steven Riskin (New York City’s Lincoln Square Synagogue), William Braude (Temple Beth-El, Providence, R.I.), Saul Leeman (Cranston Jewish Center in Rhode Island), Nathan Rosen (director of Brown University’s Hillel), Maurice Davis (Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation), Arthur Lelyveld (Cleveland’s Fairmount Temple), William Frankel (Beth Hillel Congregation, Wilmette, Illinois), Sidney Shanken (Temple Beth-El, Cranford, N.J.), Allan Levine ( Temple Emanuel of Rochester, N.Y.), Andre Ungar (Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley, N.J.), and Perry Nussbaum (whose synagogue, Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, MS, was bombed in 1967).
But in the front row of the march, only two persons to the right of King (with Ralph Bunche between them), was Heschel. Captured in an iconic photo with his long white beard and yarmulke/beret, he looked like the stereotype of a Biblical prophet. The photo also shows the marchers in the front line incongruously wearing flower leis, which a minister from Hawaii had just given them.
Anyone familiar with the events at Selma is aware of that photo and of Heschel’s presence. All film directors have the artistic freedom to decide how they want to portray historical events, but Heschel’s absence from that scene in the movie could not be an simple oversight.
Indeed, King called Heschel “my rabbi.” In many ways, Heschel was an unlikely activist. His transformation from Talmudic scholar to civil rights and anti-war protester is a remarkable story on its own.
Heschel: Scholar and Activist
Heschel (1907-1972) was born in Warsaw, Poland. His parents were Chasidim, members of a spiritually intense Orthodox Jewish sect, and descended from generations of distinguished rabbis. As a teenager, he demonstrated a precocious ability to understand lengthy treatises of Jewish law and to write his own commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. He also had a personal charisma that others saw as confirmation of his spiritual and leadership qualities.
But Heschel resisted this destiny. On a daily basis, he continued to practice Orthodox rituals, but his intellectual curiosity would not allow him to follow the path chosen for him. He convinced his family to let him attend a secular university and a liberal nontraditional rabbinical college. He first went to a secular high school in Vilnius, Lithuania, then to the University of Berlin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1933 for a dissertation on the Hebrew prophets. The next year, he completed his studies at the rabbinical college. He emerged from this education well versed in Western philosophy, history, and art as well as Jewish subjects.
The 1935 publication of his revised dissertation made his reputation as a major scholar. The book advanced the then-radical thesis that the Hebrew prophets were serious critics of the social injustices of their eras but that their ideas remained relevant to injustices in contemporary times.
It would have been difficult for Heschel to avoid thinking about social injustice; his academic career began just as the Nazis took power in Germany. He was deported back to Poland in 1938, then fled to England. In 1940 he found haven at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, the seminary that trained Reform Jewish rabbis, as part of an effort to rescue European Jewish scholars from the Nazis. While living in Cincinnati, he tried to rescue his family members, including his mother and sister, but without success: they were murdered by the Nazis.
In 1945 Heschel moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, the rabbinical seminary linked to Conservative Judaism, a branch more closely aligned with Heschel’s religious views but less comfortable with what would become his progressive political activities. At JTS he published several important books on Jewish theology, including Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951), The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1952), and Man’s Quest for God (1954).
Heschel’s knowledge of Christian theology led the Vatican to seek his advice when, in 1960, Pope John XXIII sought to repair relations between Catholics and Jews as part of the Ecumenical Council, the original name of the Second Vatican Council. Over four years, Heschel met with the pope’s representatives and with the pope himself. He had a significant influence on what became the landmark 1965 statement “Nostra Aetate” (In our time), a turning point in Christian-Jewish relations. It reversed centuries of standard Christian teachings about Jews, including no longer blaming Jews collectively for the death of Jesus and refraining from calling for Jews to convert to Catholicism.
Heschel and King
In January 1963, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored a conference in Chicago entitled “Religion and Race.” It was there that Heschel (who was asked to deliver the opening address) first met King (who gave the closing speech) .
Heschel began his speech by linking biblical history to contemporary struggles:
“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’s words were, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.’ While Pharaoh retorted: ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’ The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”
Later that year, Heschel was invited to a meeting of religious leaders with President John F. Kennedy. The day before the event, Heschel sent the president a telegram about civil rights, asking him to declare the nation’s racial inequality a “state of moral emergency” and to act with “high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
King and Heschel stayed in close touch, sharing both theological and political ideas. After the first Selma march, “Bloody Sunday,” Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the agency’s failure to protect the demonstrators.
On Friday March 19, Heschel received a telegram from King inviting him to join the third march from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel flew to Selma from New York on Saturday night and was welcomed as one of the leaders into the front row of marchers, with King, Ralph Bunche, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The photograph of Heschel walking arm in arm with King has become iconic of the coalition of Jews and blacks during the civil rights era.
Heschel later wrote:
“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Heschel was also the most visible traditional Jew in the antiwar movement. Having escaped Nazism, Heschel was acutely aware of the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. “In regard to the cruelties committed in the name of a free society,” he wrote, “some are guilty, all are responsible.” In announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War, he cited Leviticus: “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” Opposition to the war, he declared, was a religious obligation, “a supreme commandment.”
He worried that most Americans were indifferent to what he described as the criminal behavior of their elected government. “I have previously thought that we were waging war reluctantly, with sadness at killing so many people,” he wrote about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. “I realize that we are doing it now with pride in our military efficiency.”
In October 1965 Heschel spoke at an antiwar rally at the UN Church Center and proposed a national religious movement to end the war. He quickly went to work putting that idea into practice. The National Emergency Committee of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam was founded in January 1966, with Heschel, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus as cochairs. Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain, agreed to be acting executive secretary.
Their first act was to send a telegram to LBJ, signed by twenty-one clergy, including King and prominent Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, urging the president to extend the bombing halt that had begun the previous Christmas and to pursue negotiations with the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese. Over the next few months, the group recruited additional clergy and organized rallies, fasts, vigils, and other forms of protest. Heschel drafted position papers, raised money, recruited Jewish clergy, gave numerous speeches, and led a two-day fast at a New York church to push for an end to US bombing of North Vietnam.
On January 31, 1967, the organization–renamed Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) to be more inclusive–organized its first Washington, DC, rally. More than 2,000 people, clergy and laity, from forty-five states participated, including the leaders of the nation’s major Jewish and Protestant denominations. They met with their congressional representatives and picketed in front of the White House. Heschel electrified the audience with his speech, “The Moral Outrage in Vietnam,” later published in Fellowship, the magazine of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation:
“Who would have believed that we life-loving Americans are capable of bringing death and destruction to so many innocent people? We are startled to discover how unmerciful, how beastly we ourselves can be. In the sight of so many thousands of civilians and soldiers slain, injured, crippled, of bodies emaciated, of forests destroyed by fire, God confronts us with this question: Where art thou?”
The next day, Heschel joined a small CALCAV delegation in a forty-minute meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They attempted, without success, to persuade him to suspend the bombing of North Vietnam and begin peace negotiations. By early 1967, CALCAV’s leaders knew that King was preparing to make public his growing opposition to the war. Heschel, along with other major religious figures, accompanied him as he delivered his major antiwar address at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4.
During the 1968 annual meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly, Heschel was honored by his fellow Conservative rabbis for his social activism and his contributions to Jewish scholarship. King was the keynote speaker, and the rabbis feted him by singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew.
King was looking forward to attending a Passover Seder at Heschel’s home that year, but he was assassinated a few weeks before the Jewish holiday. Heschel was the only Jew to deliver a eulogy at King’s funeral service.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.