Just forty years ago, on March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., led thousands of marchers across the Pettus Bridge, from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in one of the great historic moments of the Civil Rights Movement. The greatness of that Selma march continues to reverberate because it was not simply a political event, but an extraordinary moral and religious event as well.
My father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, had been in the front line of marchers at Selma, so my husband, James Aronson, Professor of Earth Sciences and I, along with our two young daughters, were invited to join a Congressional delegation for a commemoration of the Civil Rights efforts in Alabama - the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Riders, the Birmingham Campaign, and the Selma march. The delegation, led by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), was joined by senators and congressional representatives, as well as former leaders of the Civil Rights movement and anti-apartheid leaders from South Africa who had been inspired by Dr. King. The weekend was filled with discussions of the role of nonviolence, of the power of religious faith, of theology combating racism.
I was a child in 1965, but I remember vividly when my father left our home in New York City to take part in the Selma march. He was a Jewish theologian who had long been active with Dr. King, lecturing and writing on behalf of the Civil Rights movement. My father used to tell me often when I was a child about his own childhood in Warsaw. His family was so poor that they frequently didn't have enough heat at home, and his hands were frostbitten so many times that they became permanently swollen. We lived near Harlem, and when we walked in the neighborhood, the poverty and suffering and injustice we saw became personalized, part of our own family's story.
My father had lived in Nazi Germany, escaping at the last minute, and his mother and sisters were murdered by the Nazis. For him, those experiences meant both a deepened commitment to his faith and his people, and also a heightened sensitivity to the suffering of all people. For him, Nazism began with a debased view of human beings, which, in turn, was rooted in contempt for God. "You cannot worship God," he would say, "and then look at a human being, created by God in God's own image, as if he or she were an animal."
When my father went to Selma, we were all nervous. John Lewis, who was then head of SNCC, had tried two weeks earlier to lead a march across the Pettus Bridge, and the Alabama state troopers had rioted against the demonstrators, beating Lewis and others severely. That day came to be known as "Bloody Sunday."
I vividly recall when my father left home two weeks later for Selma, kissing him goodbye, watching him get into a taxi to go to the airport and wondering if I would ever see him again. The next few days were tense, and when my father returned from the march, I was relieved and proud. The march itself had not been without violence -one of the march volunteers, Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit housewife, was shot and killed by four Ku Klux Klan members while driving marchers to the Montgomery airport.
And the anger of whites was expressed, my father described, not only in the epithets they screamed at the marchers, but even at the Alabama airport, where he was treated with deliberate rudeness.
On the other hand, it was also a festive occasion. A participant from Hawaii gave flower leis to the marchers in the front row, and my father was delighted when a little boy came over, pointed to his beard and asked, "Are you Santa Claus?" Many of those who marched in 1965 returned last month and remembered my father, not only for his beard but for his book, The Prophets, which became a kind of guidebook to many in the movement. It was heartening to bring my father's grandchildren to meet the leaders he had once known-Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Bernard Lafayette, C.T. Vivian, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis - and hear their fond memories of him.
For my father, though, the march was not simply a political demonstration, but a religious occasion. He saw it as a revival of prophetic Judaism's political activism and also of the traditions of Hasidism, a Jewish pietistic revival movement that arose in the late eighteenth century, according to which walking could be a spiritual experience.
He said it reminded him of the message of the prophets, whose primary concern was social injustice, and of his Hasidic forebears, for whom compassion for the suffering of other people defined a religious person.
Jim and I hope we can raise our daughters with the spirit of Selma, and convey to them the combination of prophetic activism and Hasidic spirituality that my father taught. While they are too young now-four and six-to understand the significance of their weekend in Alabama, we hope they will retain a sense of the spirit of the movement.
When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, "For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."
By SUSANNAH HESCHEL
Eli Black Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, Department of Religion
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Last Updated: 12/17/08