When We Marched Together in Selma

How Bloody Sunday Brought Together Jews and Blacks

One Small Step: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched with Rabbi Abraham Heschel (far right) in 1965.
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One Small Step: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched with Rabbi Abraham Heschel (far right) in 1965.

By S. L. Wisenberg

Published August 23, 2014, issue of August 22, 2014.

Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. They succeeded on their third attempt, protected by federal troops. You’ve seen the famous picture — Martin Luther King, Jr., heading the Selma marchers, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos. Incongruously, they’re wearing leis, a gift from a Hawaiian delegation.

Since Bloody Sunday and the protests leading up to it, the town has been associated internationally with racism, helped by its burly segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark from central casting, who led state and local officers with tear gas and truncheons; soon, it’s going to become known by another generation — the feature film “Selma” shows King’s struggle there to secure voting rights for African-Americans. The filming in Atlanta, Selma and Montgomery, has just wrapped up; producers include Oprah Winfrey (who has a small role) and Brad Pitt’s film production company Plan B. It will be distributed by Paramount and Pathé, with a limited release on Christmas Day.

Next spring, expect international media coverage on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when activists and politicians, civil rights veterans and college students on break will flock to the city for the Jubilee during March 5-10 in 2015.

The annual commemorative weekend event has drawn Barack Obama, the Clintons, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson and others. This year, rising leader Rev. Dr. William Barber of North Carolina was a featured speaker.

Back in 1965, after the first failed attempts to cross the bridge, King called on clergy from throughout the United States to join him. The American Jewish Committee sent him a telegram praising his “remarkable leadership and inspiration” and condemning police brutality.

Heschel, who taught Jewish mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was very close with King, said Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. She notes that her father’s writing on racism was “full of passion,” even before he had much contact with African Americans. He was born in Warsaw, pursued secular and religious studies and teaching in Germany in the 1930s, and was deported by the Nazi regime to Poland. He was able to leave for England in 1939, and arrived in the U.S. in 1940.

The morning of the successful march on March 21, 1965, King, Heschel and the archbishop all prayed in their own spaces in the front room of the spacious A-frame home of Jean Richie Sherrod and Dr. Sullivan Jackson, which had become the headquarters of the Selma Movement. Their daughter Jawana, then a 4-year-old, remembers seeing Heschel at the door and thinking that Santa Claus had arrived. Now, many years later, Jawana has created a foundation in honor of her late parents, and plans to convert the family home into a house museum, ready for viewing by March.

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