Many of us who were in Selma last Sunday remember Bloody Sunday – we were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, or we grew up in Alabama, or we watched the news with our families in homes across the nation. We grieved then, and we made up our minds never to be silent about injustice. We still grieve today, and we have not changed our minds.
At Temple Mishkan Israel in Selma, many of the like-minded gathered on Sunday for a special commemoration organized by Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emanuel, Greensboro, North Carolina. The program celebrated the common commitment of Jews and African-Americans to champion social justice and human rights. Our shared history as peoples who have been the victims of hate brought us together with a keen awareness of what is at stake. Jewish groups from Birmingham, Montgomery, and Greensboro, NC traveled to Selma for the event.
Music set the stage as we warmed up our voices to familiar Civil Rights songs led by guitarist Doug Mishkin. The diverse congregation became an impromptu choir that increased in volume and enthusiasm as the morning went on.
In his opening remarks, Rabbi Guttman asked if any were present who had marched on Bloody Sunday. An elderly Black woman rose in our midst. She stood proudly, her eyes shining, her gold hat like a crown as we honored her with a standing ovation – the first of the day.
Rabbi Guttman went on to ask people under the age of 20 to stand. Scattered throughout the room, young people stood, looking both shy and resolute as they accepted the mantle of being the next generation of feet on the ground in the social justice movement.
Two Black women from North Carolina, powerful singers, led us in a rhythmic, melodic South African song in preparation for the messages to come.
Rev. Dr. William Barber II, head of the North Carolina NAACP, spoke in his thundering and resonant voice about current threats against voting rights and brought the gravitas and spirit of the African-American church into our midst.
David Goodman, Director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, recalled his brother Andrew, one of the three Civil Rights workers who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964.
Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary, was a surprise guest. In his gentle and forthright manner, he talked about the experience of being a musician during the Civil Rights marches, when he and other artists were not just entertaining the troops, but were embedded in the action. He led us in a slow, sweet and moving rendition of “Blowin’ In the Wind.”
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), is the first Director of RAC who was born after 1965. His talk made it apparent that he is an example of a new generation of fervent, articulate Jewish leaders in the movement.
Dr. Susannah Heschel, Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, is the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. She spoke about her father and the social justice work she continues.
Dr. Clarence Jones, political advisor, counsel and draft speechwriter for Dr. King, was another surprise guest. He had heard about the gathering at Temple Mishkan Israel and came with a message for us. “If the surviving lions do not tell their story,” he said, “then the hunters get all the credit.” Dr. Jones gave a firsthand account of the Selma experience, pointing out that President Lyndon B. Johnson played a positive role in the advancement of Civil Rights and emphasizing the commitment and leadership of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Rabbi Randall Konigsburg of Temple Beth-El, Birmingham, Rabbi Elliot Stevens of Temple Beth-Or, Montgomery, and Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion also participated in the program.
After the program, we shared a meal and walked the few blocks down Broad Street to join the crowds of people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was named for a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, but which today clearly stands for victory over the pernicious hatred of the KKK.
Temple Mishkan Israel, built in 1899, is an imposing red brick building whose beautiful interior is sadly in disrepair, as the building is no longer used for Sabbath services in a city where there are just ten Jews. Nevertheless, when approached by Rabbi Guttman about hosting a 50th anniversary commemoration event, the little Jewish community in Selma mobilized and rose to the occasion with the help of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama. The Temple welcomed a full house, with busloads of guests from Birmingham and North Carolina, and the sanctuary resonated with music, remembrance, and exhortation.
As a reminder of the involvement of the Jewish people in the Civil Rights struggle and our ongoing commitment to social justice and human rights, Temple Mishkan Israel was a fitting and inspiring venue for a gathering that reaffirmed our dream of Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world.