“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.
Today marks the 45th anniversary of the tragic assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
While the entire world felt the loss of this leader, his dream lives on. He was one of many committed to furthering the cause of equality and justice.
Today, the Lorraine Motel has been converted into the incredible National Civil Rights Museum, documenting the troubled past while celebrating the victories achieved. While there is still much work to be done, there is also much pride in the movement’s continuing accomplishments.
Extinguishing one light, when so many others have been ignited, will not allow darkness to win.
Shalom, y’all, and may Dr. King’s memory – and dream – continue to be a blessing.
The Civil Rights Movement is one of the most compelling chapters of American history. State and federal governments were right to set aside a holiday to celebrate its achievements – and without a doubt, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the movement’s most eloquent and charismatic spokesman. His tragic death made him a martyr to the cause of justice. And yet, every Martin Luther King Day, I find myself resisting this exclusive focus on Dr. King, who has come to represent the sum total of the movement for most Americans.
This idea struck me most recently when I was attending a presentation by a group of students from McComb, Mississippi, who were taking part in a special locally-focused civil rights course. The two high school students noted that while they had heard of Martin Luther King, they had no idea of the civil rights history of their own town. Prior to the class, they had never heard of Herbert Lee, a leader of the McComb black community and fighter for civil rights, who was murdered by a state legislator in 1961. As part of the course, these students have interviewed several community members who played a role in the local movement.
These students have done tremendous work uncovering the civil rights history of their own community. This exciting McComb Legacy Project shows that all of our communities have an important civil rights history that needs to be preserved and understood. Our heroes are not just carved into monuments in Washington. They still walk the streets of our communities.
The most important lesson of the movement is how regular people came together to change this country. The best book about the Mississippi movement, Local People, by John Dittmer, sums up this idea in its very title. I fear that by focusing exclusively on the life and achievements of one great leader, we lose sight of the idea that we all have the power to change the world.
It’s true. We do have the collective power to change the world. It happened right here, during the Civil Rights Movement.
So today, challenge yourself to learn something about other great leaders like Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Aaron Henry, Fred Shuttlesworth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many more. Even better, look into the civil rights history of your own community (be it north, south, east, or west). I am sure you will uncover local heroes who helped ensure the continuation of Dr. King’s dream.
Do you have family or community members who fought for civil rights? How will you honor this legacy?