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Following in my father's footsteps: Selma 40 years later

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.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Susanna Heschel's father, participated in the Selma Civil Rights March on March 21, 1965.  The march led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in July 1965.  From far left: U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who had been severely beaten on March 7, 1965 while leading the "Bloody Sunday" march; an unidentified nun; Ralph Abernathy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Bunche, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Rabbi Heschel; the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

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.

Professor Susanna Heschel and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth at the March 6, 2005 Congressional delegation commemorating the Civil Rights efforts in Alabama.  Reverend Shuttlesworth marched in Selma with Heschel's father in 1965.  He led a church in Birmingham and founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which pledged non-violence, in the late 1950's. (photo by Jim Aronson)

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."

Eli Black Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, Department of Religion

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Last Updated: 12/17/08