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.
Below is an excerpt from a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward entitled “The Best Jewish Film Festivals of 2014”:
The Mobile Jewish Film Festival, Mobile, Ala.
New York, Chicago, Miami, we expect. But Charlotte, N.C.? Baton Rouge, La.? After much deliberation, we finally chose The Mobile Jewish Film Festival, which will feature just seven selections (one of which is still a mystery), but still deserved an award because, well, Alabama.
We don’t know about y’all, but to us, a Jewish film festival in Mobile, Alabama isn’t so stunning. Neither, for that matter, is a Jewish film festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, nor Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (In fact… several of the Southern Jewish film festivals, including the ones in Mobile and Baton Rouge, were started up as part of the ISJL’s Jewish Cinema South regional film festival network.)
In fact, when looking at the communities in-depth, a Jewish film festival in these towns merits more of an “of course.” The Jewish community of Mobile is in fact home to two synagogues (one Reform and one Conservative), a Jewish Family Services, a Jewish Federation, and an excellent Holocaust Library. And then there’s Charlotte, with 12,000 Jews and 26 different Jewish organizations listed in the Jewish community directory. It’s also home to Shalom Park, a 54-acre campus which brings together the entire local Jewish community. Baton Rouge’s community, while small, also has two synagogues, a Federation, and a Hillel located at Louisiana State University.
The two of us writing this post are big-city Yankees in every sense of the term. One of us hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, considerably more well-known for its cheese than its grits. The other one of us is from Baltimore, Maryland, which some might argue has little bits and pieces of Southern character. However, most would agree shares more with Delaware or New Jersey than it does with Louisiana or Tennessee.
We understand the author’s perspective, because at one point each of us shared it with her. Our communities growing up did not discuss the South as a contributor to Jewish life. To be frank, versions of ourselves from a few years ago might not have expected to hear about Southern Jewish Film Festivals, either.
But these feelings of ours were at best sectionalist and at worst ignorant. They failed to recognize the unique and beautiful character of many Southern Jewish communities. They ignored the truth that many of the earliest American Jewish communities sprouted in the South, in locations such as Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Finally, they create a schism between Jews in the North and those beneath the Mason-Dixon line.
We hope the author will come and visit Mobile, Charlotte, or even us at the ISJL headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re confident that, if she does, she’ll leave with the knowledge that Jewish life in our region is alive and well. And maybe, just maybe, she won’t be so stunned the next time she learns of a Jewish cultural event in the Deep South.
Today’s blog post was co-authored by Education Fellows Dan Ring and Lex Rofes.
Students at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama, listen in rapt attention to The Rabbi and the 29 Witches. We love everything about this image, from the beard and hat on our Ed Fellow (hey, sometimes you have to be the rabbi AND the witches!) to the cute cuddling yarmulke buddies.
Shabbat shalom, y’all!