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.
This piece was written jointly by Lonnie Kleinman and Lex Rofes.
An article about the soon-to-be-released film Selma recently appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, a publication we both read regularly and respect immensely. The article, written by Leida Snow, is entitled “Selma Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights.” The assertion that Selma under-represents Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movie and “distorts” history is a claim with which we strongly disagree.
Full disclosure: We have not yet seen ‘Selma,’ which opens January 9. What we have seen is Ms. Snow’s article. Therefore, we are not responding to any alleged inaccuracies in the film– only the inaccuracies in Ms. Snow’s own piece.
Before articulating any philosophical disagreement, we believe it is important to first mention a few factual inaccuracies. We point out these inaccuracies not to demean the author, but because the historical events referenced are so crucial to our country’s history, and should be presented thoughtfully and accurately.
Snow refers to “thousands” of Freedom Riders “riding into Mississippi” in 1964. In fact, the Freedom Riders rode in 1961, and there were only 436 total riders. She also incorrectly implies that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were freedom riders. The murder of those three civil rights workers was a tragedy that, as Snow states, provoked national outrage, but they were not involved with the Freedom Rides. We believe that, when stating “Freedom Riders,” Ms. Snow means to refer to the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which was indeed characterized by “well over a thousand volunteers, mostly white,” risking their lives to come to Mississippi.
Factual inaccuracies aside, the broader message of her piece is deeply troubling. As the title suggests, Ms. Snow believes that the film’s failure to include Jews undermines its credibility. She states that by “excluding” Jews, the movie misses a “great teaching moment.”
We see things differently.
As Jews, we are certainly inspired by Jewish veterans of the Civil Rights movement. That said, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the story of Selma specifically, was not “our” story. The story of Selma was about fighting to achieve justice for African-Americans, living in an unjust society.
To be sure, this movie could have mentioned Jews. It could have featured inspirational Freedom Summer veterans, as Snow asserts—and just as easily, while we may not like to admit it, it could have featured Jews like Sol Tepper, who wrote dozens of articles for the Selma Times Journal advocating for segregation and was quite hostile towards Civil Rights advocates. Good or bad, Jews could have been included more—but that’s not the focus of this film. This omission is not a “distortion.”
Selma’s producers include several people of color. Its director, Ava DuVernay, was the first ever black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe—a great milestone in film history. It is all too common for the stories of African-Americans to be told by people who are not African-American, and we all have the right to tell our own stories.
Let’s think about what Snow’s criticism would look like if directed at a movie written by Jews about Jewish oppression.
There are many movies about the Holocaust, and some of them speak only to the experiences of Jews, without including righteous Gentiles (may their memories be for a blessing). These movies have not “distorted” history. They have chosen to focus specifically on the lives of Jews who were the subject of incredible discrimination and hatred, and that editorial decision is a reasonable one. Just as we would expect Catholics to watch a Holocaust film without criticizing the editorial choice not to includecourageous acts by Catholics, we should be able to watch a film about others’ struggles without demanding that we share the spotlight.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that a core aspect of being a Jew is “the ability to experience the suffering of others.” As many of us head to theaters to watch Selma, let’s seek to hone that skill. Let’s seek to better understand the story of African-Americans – their history, their struggles, and their suffering. Doing so might not teach us much about any particular Jews. But it could teach us something about what it means to be Jewish.
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This piece was jointly authored by Malkie Schwartz and Rabbi Jeremy Simons, reflecting on last night’s grand jury ruling in Ferguson, Missouri and sharing their insights and responses.
In light of the grand jury findings released last night, we may never know what actually happened on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. Some believe Michael Brown was shot without cause, while others—including the grand jury—believe the available evidence demonstrates Officer Darren Wilson felt his life was in danger and acted accordingly. We cannot know what happened in those 90 seconds, but we know what happened next:
Michael Brown’s body lay exposed on the pavement for more than four hours in full view of the public, including his family. We also know that later that night, a Ferguson police officer allowed his dog to urinate on the very spot. Lesley McSpadden, Michael’s mother, watched as police cars intentionally ran over the flowers she placed at the spot where her son was killed.
We also know residents of Ferguson began gathering and demanding justice. Had they not gathered, none of us would today know the name Michael Brown or be able to locate the town of Ferguson. Since August 9, hardly a week has gone by without news of another instance of police brutality. This is not because police brutality has increased dramatically these past five months; it’s because we’re finally being exposed to it.
Exodus teaches that we should not oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. According to the Talmud, the Torah repeats this commandment in various forms 36 times. Commandments involving the stranger often include mention of the widow and the orphan. These three categories represent those who are most vulnerable in society; those most likely to be abused. We can add to this list the impoverished and the historically oppressed. The town of Ferguson, where more than two-thirds of residents are African American and more than one in four children live below the poverty line, falls into this category.
The incredible repetition of this commandment signals more than just emphasis. The Torah is telling us something here: it’s acknowledging that our own inclination may be to ignore those who we do not know. It’s also telling us—thirty six times—that we cannot ignore them. It’s screaming for our attention because it knows our nature. Our Jewish tradition demands we join those across this country advocating for greater transparency and reform in our law enforcement communities. Just as our tradition recognized our own inclination may be to stand on the sidelines, it also warns of the consequence: the Mishnah teaches that the sword enters our world on account of justice delayed, and justice denied.
Justice is too often delayed, but it cannot be denied.
Yesterday, President Obama honored the lives of James Chaney, Michael Henry Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. The three men were honored along with 15 civilians who, the President said, “made the world stronger, wiser, more beautiful, and more humane.” It felt strange to see the families of people who lost their lives in pursuit of civil rights being honored alongside, well, Meryl Streep. But in his introduction of Ms. Streep, the President said “She inhabits her characters so fully and compassionately… It is the greatest gift of human beings that we have this power of empathy.”
Empathy. Empathy is what motivated civil rights workers to risk their lives and volunteer in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. After all, they weren’t going to sit by and feel badly for voters who were denied their right to vote. They felt connected to the reality faced by African American citizens in Mississippi and, together, they worked toward justice for all.
Only hours after the award ceremony, we learned that the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri found that there was no probable cause to indict Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Regardless of what we think about the outcome, this is a time to exercise that power of empathy. To try and imagine the anguish being felt by Michael Brown’s mother, his father, his family, friends and neighbors. To try and imagine what it must feel like to be a young African American living in one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country, and in a city where 63% of the residents are African American and only approximately 5% of the police force is African American. To be a young African American, and know your demographic makes up more than 85% of people stopped and more than 90% of the people searched in 2013 in your hometown. To be African American and keeping hearing about young, unarmed African Americans killed—by the people committed to “serve and protect.”
We are two white Jews, authoring this post; we know we cannot truly understand what it feels like to be Black in Ferguson, or America. But our power of empathy can help us try to do our part to make things better. Let us send an alternative message to all young people, particularly young African Americans, in our communities: We know that there is work to be done and we are willing to follow the lead of those who have historically been most disenfranchised, to do what it takes to make sure that all members of our community are cherished and respected. Justice may be delayed, but it cannot be denied.
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