David Sookne, front left, and Bruce Hartford, third from right, register voters in 1965 / Courtesy
(JTA) — Since the nationwide release of “Selma” a week before the national holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I have wondered about the extent of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement. Was it just the Selma marches? Was our support also financial, in the voting booth? Or something more?
Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein concluded in their 1998 book “Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time” that “Jews served in the forefront of the fight to end racial segregation in education, public accommodations and voting.” But wanting to hear it from someone who was actually in the “forefront,” I spoke with a Jewish recruit in the fight.
David Sookne may not sound like someone who served on the front lines of our nation’s battle for civil rights. The semi-retired mathematician and computer programmer — a resident of suburban Los Angeles with whom I pray a couple of times a month — is exacting in speech and even tempered.
He’s also blessed with an excellent memory: Sookne can name the people in the Roosevelt administration down to the level of the undersecretary.
So he vividly recalls his seven weeks spent in Alabama’s rural Crenshaw County as a foot soldier in the voter registration campaign for blacks organized by King through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was the summer of 1965 — after the Selma marches but before the passage of the Voting Rights Act that would be one of their outcomes.
Sookne, then 22 and enrolled in a doctoral program in in theoretical mathematics at the University of Chicago, signed up after following the news stories about the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer — a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi in 1964 in which several supporters and volunteers were murdered, including two young Jewish men.
After first driving home to Silver Spring, Md. — his parents didn’t want him to go — he headed for Atlanta.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, right, marches with Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders / Getty Images
(JTA) — The 50th anniversary of the 1965 march at Selma is being commemorated this year with the release of the film “Selma.” Regrettably, the film represents the march as many see it today, only as an act of political protest.
But for my father Abraham Joshua Heschel and for many participants, the march was both an act of political protest and a profoundly religious moment: an extraordinary gathering of nuns, priests, rabbis, black and white, a range of political views, from all over the United States.
Perhaps more an act of celebration of the success of the civil rights movement than of political protest, Selma affirmed that the movement had won the conscience of America.
President Lyndon Johnson had just declared, “We Shall Overcome,” and congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act would come quickly. Thanks to the religious beliefs and political convictions of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., coalitions had been built, religious differences overcome and visions articulated that meshed religious and political goals.
My father felt that the prophetic tradition of Judaism had come alive at Selma. He said that King told him it was the greatest day in his life, and my father said that he was reminded at Selma of walking with Hasidic rebbes in Europe. Such was the spiritual atmosphere of the day.
When he returned, he famously said, “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.”
A still from the new film ‘Selma’
Leida Snow’s review of the new film “Selma” takes director Ava DuVernay to task for a “glaring omission” — airbrushing out the contributions of white people in general, and Jews in particular, to the civil rights movement. But Snow makes this critique by drawing selectively from American Jewish history, and her triumphalist narrative is more deserving of her critique than the movie is.
Snow offers a well-tread recitation of a triumphalist version of black-Jewish relations presented in synagogues and summer camps, complete with mention of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, Jewish involvement in the March on Washington, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma. This version animates social action in a multitude of Jewish spaces, including youth groups, Hillel-sponsored alternative spring breaks and missions to post-Katrina New Orleans. But it’s dangerous for several reasons.
First, it’s a version of history that ignores how the civil rights movement was — rightly — a black-led movement in which only a small proportion of Jews played significant roles. When Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered alongside James Chaney in June 1964, the death of white Jews drew Jewish attention to a movement that had long since been underway. And it’s worth pausing to ask, as a community: Had Chaney been murdered without Goodman and Schwerner, would that moment have attracted the attention that it did in the Jewish community? And if not, why?
Jews pop up in unexpected places in Memphis, Tennessee. Here are six things that surprised us in the Blues City.
The biblical Joseph is stalking us in the South. We first came across him in Alabama, when we drove through Dothan, a town with a fledgling Jewish community. The town’s name comes from a verse in the Torah: When Joseph goes out to check on his shepherd brothers, he’s told that they’ve gone to Dothan. When he gets there, the brothers — jealous of him for being the family favorite — sell him into slavery. We have no idea why the early settlers of Alabama thought it would be a good idea to name their town after this obscure biblical hamlet — but the choice of name is painfully ironic: it references a story about slavery, and we all know what part Alabama played in that dark chapter of history.
Joseph showed up again in Memphis on our visit to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. A plaque marking the spot quotes that exact same Joseph story: “They said one to another, ‘Behold, here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him and we shall see what will become of his dream.’”
The Lorraine Motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which traces the struggle of African Americans from slavery to civil rights. Jewish references are everywhere. Take the rabbi who visited Parchman Prison in Mississippi to counsel the Freedom Riders incarcerated there. When the warden warned him not to give the prisoners any information about what was happening in the outside world, he replied, “You mean, I can’t tell them that Roger Maris just hit his 62nd home run?” When the warden said no, the rabbi kept up the back-and-forth, listing more and more things that he couldn’t say — all within hearing distance of the prisoners. How Talmudic.
Walking into the Freedom Summer exhibit is like flipping through a Jewish summer camp photo album. Many of the white college kids who came down to Mississippi to help register black voters in 1964 were Northern Jews — and it shows. Three famous faces stand out: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish volunteers, were brutally lynched by the Ku Klux Klan along with James Chaney, a black activist from Mississippi.
Investigators probe bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama./FBI Photo
Holocaust analogies abound in Birmingham.
That became clear within minutes of meeting Sol Kimerling, the 84-year-old historian who embodies Southern charm — and who served as our tour guide for the day. Dressed in a blue checkered shirt, brown corduroys and dapper black shoes, he drove us to the famous 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bomb exploded in 1963, killing four African American girls.
That wasn’t the first racially motivated bombing in the area — not even close. Between the late 1940s and mid 1960s, Birmingham saw almost 50 unsolved bombings, earning it the nickname “Bomingham.” For Jews, two incidents stand out: the attempted bombing at Temple Beth-El, the Conservative synagogue we visited on Friday, and the bombing of Bethel Baptist Church, led by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Because these two incidents happened within weeks of each other, they served as a “turning point” for Birmingham’s Jews, Sol said. He compared the incident to Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht, when “alarm bells rang in every Jewish house.”
On a Sunday morning we watched Christians — dressed in their Sunday best — climb up the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. We followed — we love a good Baptist “Hallelujah!” The huge sanctuary was packed: old and young, black and white, all sat together. Participatory singing and clapping shook the pews. One woman just kept reaching for the heavens. The mood was so vibrantly joyous that it was hard to believe we were sitting in the spot where four little girls were killed for the “crime” of being black.
Right across the street from the church is Kelly Ingram Park, where Birmingham police and their attack dogs famously clashed with civil rights protestors. Today, the park is calm and beautifully manicured, but menacing dogs — in the form of sculptures — lie in wait, ready to pounce. Watching over everything is a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a sculpture of two children who represent the hundreds of youths jailed for marching without a permit. Sol took it all in stride, happily pointing out the weld work that formed the dog’s joints.
Anne and Sigal’s flight path. Next stop, Birmingham.
We landed in Birmingham and were hit by a wall of heat — and a Bible.
The taxi driver who ushered us from the airport to our hotel keeps a copy of the Holy Bible on his passenger seat. Welcome to Alabama.
That was tame compared to the next cab ride we took (don’t worry, this will turn into a road trip once we pick up our rental car), which was to Temple Beth-El, Birmingham’s largest Conservative synagogue. After a 40-minute wait for the Yellow Cab company, we climbed in. The conversation with our driver went something like this:
Driver: Which restaurant?
Anne and Sigal: We’re not going to a restaurant, it’s a synagogue.
So you’re Jewish?
Well, I’ll say one thing about the Jewish people: You two are gorgeous!
What’s your name?
I knew it! I knew it was going to be a Jewish name!
It’s Hebrew for “chosen,” actually.
I was always raised like, “don’t say anything bad about the Jewish people, they’re God’s chosen people.” So I have the utmost respect.
The driver then went on to recount every encounter he has ever had with a Jew anywhere — including a stint in the Czech Republic, where he visited the concentration camp Thieresienstadt. He wants to go to Auschwitz next. After a few choice words about what he’d do to Hitler if ever the Nazi leader fell into his hands, our driver said, “Schindler’s List — that movie made me mad!”
The following speech was delivered at this week’s ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Fifty years ago a Rabbi shared these steps with Dr. King and began his remarks by saying, “I speak to you as an American Jew.”
My name is Alan van Capelle, and today I speak to you as an American Jew. I represent the Jewish Civil Rights Group Bend the Arc, and the more than thirty organizations collectively called the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
The vision Dr. King offered us fifty years ago wasn’t only a dream. It was a call for equality but it was also a demand for justice.
We may be closer to legal equality but we are far, far, far from justice. We are far from justice when young black men are stopped and frisked and disrespected on the streets of New York City.
We are far from justice when students carry the burden of loans.
We are far from justice when 11 million immigrants work every single day without protections or a pathway to citizenship.
We are far from justice when a gay, lesbian, or transgender person can be fired from their job simply for being who they are.
We are far from justice when we accept the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and we allow American children to go to bed hungry.
Yes, the moral arc of the universe is long and it does in fact bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because of people like Bayard Rustin, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner. It bends because of you and me. We make the arc bend. And for many of us, it’s not bending fast enough.
Every year Jews around the world recall how Moses led his people out of slavery and towards the Promised Land. But the desert came first.
Jews believe that the only way to the Promised Land is through the desert. We are taught that “there is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”
Fifty years after Dr. King delivered his speech from these very steps we are still a people wandering through the desert. But don’t be discouraged. Because I’m not.
When I look around this Mall, at all of you – so diverse, so impassioned, so bonded together by shared values, hopes, and dreams – then I can hear in your voices the echo of Dr. King, and I know that the edge of the desert is near, and the promised land within sight.
This week, the Forward’s web site was overwhelmed by traffic from the social news site Reddit, which featured my piece about the Newtown school rampage, “Wrestling With the Details of Noah Pozner’s Killing.” In the post, I outlined and explained the Forward’s decision to publish Noah’s mother’s description of her son’s body during our December 23 interview.
“[Noah’s] jaw was blown away,” Veronique Pozner told me. “I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered. They were brutalized.”
Why, a month after the killings, does the story of a Newtown mother’s insistence on sharing the brutality of her son’s death continue to resonate so strongly? The answer might be found in the Reddit thread, which attracted thousands of comments. Several users compared Veronique Pozner to Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy whose 1955 murder helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Originally from Chicago, Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi where he was accused of flirting with a white female shopkeeper.
The Washington Post has a useful news analysis that looks at the New York State gay marriage decision and what it says about the state of liberalism. The headline says it all: “The rise of zombie liberalism: Half-dead, half-alive. “
The basic premise isn’t terribly new, but it’s too often forgotten: the liberalism of “Expanding civil rights and the retreat of discrimination on race, gender and now sexual orientation” is doing great. But “Income inequality has soared to levels not seen since the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, anti-tax orthodoxy is ascendant on the right, the safety net is under attack, and labor unions are barely hanging on.”
If the country is becoming more liberal on accepting minority rights, why is the left having such a hard time making progress on its bread-and-butter issues of class and economics, which were once its central, animating concerns?
It’s a critical question. While focusing on the civil rights of minorities, liberals and Democrats have lost their voice on the economic rights of the majority. Minority rights are a noble cause, but majorities win elections.
The writer, Post national reporter Alec McGillis, walks through a variety of explanations without taking a stand. One candidate: Americans’ native self-reliance, which favors individual rights but recoils at communal responsibility. Another candidate: the identity politics of the 1970s, which led to a decline of class in the attention of liberals — as a result of which “they were just less attentive to issues of economics,” in the words of John Russo, co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.
Sobering thoughts indeed, until you come to this conversation-stopper:
Of course, New Deal-style economic liberals note that polls show even greater public support for liberal planks such as raising taxes on the wealthy than for gay marriage, which recently crept above 50 percent in Gallup’s survey. According to Gallup, 59 percent of Americans say upper-income people pay too little in taxes, and 67 percent say corporations pay too little — which helps explain President Obama’s singling out of tax breaks for billionaires at his press conference this past week. The success of the liberal agenda, from this perspective, is less about where public opinion is than where the money is.
Gay rights proponents in New York had the backing of some very wealthy Wall Street donors who normally support Republican causes but who gave $1 million for the same-sex marriage push, motivated by their libertarian leanings and, in some cases, by the fact that members of their families are gay. When they are not cutting checks for gay marriage, these men are leading the way in opposing higher taxes on the very wealthy and fighting tougher financial regulations, with resources far beyond what organized labor can muster…
We could stop there. But McGillis gets into some identity-group politics that complicates the issue in some very interesting ways: