There’s a slight curve to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The curve means that you can’t see what’s beyond the bridge until you are halfway across it.
This weekend, I participated in a walk across the bridge, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma. Because of the size of the crowd, it took at least an hour to slowly shuffle up that bridge, staring at the block letters spelling out the name of the KKK Grand Dragon it honors. When I finally crested the top, and was able to see past the curve, I was surprised by the sea of people swarming on the other side.
This weekend, the people on the other side were peaceful, wandering past vendor booths and a concert stage. But I realized that fifty years ago, when the original marchers began walking up that bridge, they had no way to know what was on the other side either… and still they kept marching.
Our morning started at Congregation Mishkan Israel, where hundreds had gathered to commemorate Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. There are only about ten Jews living in Selma today, yet almost every seat in the synagogue sanctuary was filled. People came from all over the country, including a group from North Carolina that had traveled all night by bus, and were hours away from an equally long trip home.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, was the star of the show. In 1965, after marching, he famously said he felt as though his feet were praying. His daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, addressed the crowd in 2015. She offered some context for that famous quote: He may be lauded today as a Jewish hero, but he wasn’t at the time; most Jews responded to his involvement in the movement with confusion or even hostility.
Part of the reason we revere him today was because he stood largely alone at the time.
And that’s the thing. It’s so much easier to join a cause that’s already been won. There’s a reason the marchers of 2015 outnumbered those of 50 years ago by at least 30 to 1. While we were dealing with street vendors and porta-poties, they faced tear gas and billy-clubs. Real social change rarely comes with funnel cake. I got the impression those around me understood this fact. We were there to honor those who led the movement and celebrate their success, but we were also there to energize ourselves for the work that needs to be done.
David Goodman, brother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman, reminded us that in some states it’s easier to vote with a gun permit than a college ID. In fact, almost all of the speakers at Mishkan Israel focused their remarks of the growing disenfranchisement movement in our country, and our duty to oppose it. It’s only in hindsight that poll taxes and literacy tests appear so blatantly evil. Plenty of people defended their use at the time just as plenty defend the elimination of early voting and same-day registration today. Fifty years from now, we will look back on the current wave of disenfranchisement and wonder what people were thinking.
Professor Susannah Heschel told the audience at Mishkan Israel: “Today we’re on a pilgrimage to remember, not simply to remember what we Jews contributed to the civil rights movement— no, we’re here to thank the Civil Rights movement for what it has given to us as Jews.” Her father was a religious leader who aimed to shock people out of complacency; to truly honor his legacy, we must still be willing to shock people out of complacency today. He spoke of praying feet, but he also warned that a consensus of conscience means nothing without “incessant action.”
This incessant action is still necessary. This is why we are marching in Selma still today. We must not only march, but also raise our voices against injustice still… even when we can’t quite see past the slight curve in the bridge we are marching across.
“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.