This past week marks the 57th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. From March 21st– March 25th , tens of thousands of people marched from Selma to Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery, in pursuit of expanding civil rights and passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 under Martin Luther King’s leadership. The Selma to Montgomery March was the culmination of an especially dark period of the Civil Rights Movement; although the Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964, many African Americans were still living in an America wherein their rights were not protected. Most important of these said rights – the right to vote. There were African American communities all over the country where few people were entitled to vote, and nowhere was worse than in Selma, Alabama. At the beginning of 1965, only two percent of Black people were registered to vote in Selma, despite many local voting registration efforts. So, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and many local and national activists kickstarted a national campaign to enact new voting rights legislation, with Selma at the forefront. Selma was believed to serve as the most effective location for gaining national attention as well as the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson due to the notorious police brutality under Sheriff Jim Clark. This prediction was spot on as mass arrests and police violence toward nonviolent African American activists and demonstrators skyrocketed. While the locals in Selma were accustomed to the brutality of law enforcement, the fatal shooting of an unarmed and nonviolent 26 year-old man caused a major shift in the paradigm. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot while attempting to protect his mother from a trooper’s nightstick during an evening march. This tragic event set forth plans for a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7th. MLK was in Atlanta, so John Lewis and Hosea Williams, SCLC and SNCC leaders, led the march which has since become known as “Bloody Sunday”. When the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers ordered them to disperse, and when they rejected the order, the state troopers were told to advance by Sheriff Jim Clark. They beat the marchers with clubs and blasted tear gas into the crowd; it became complete and utter chaos in the most tragic way. A severely beaten John Lewis told reporters “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma”. The events of Bloody Sunday caused King to reach out to all religious leaders across the country to come to Selma and join him for a nonviolent and peaceful march. Facing immense pressure from President Johnson to delay the march, King ultimately led a march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but stopped there to lead a prayer, and then returned to Selma. A few days later President Johnson publicly stated his support for the Selma marchers, and on March 17th , introduced new voting rights legislation to Congress. Four days later, 25,000 demonstrators left Selma and embarked on a 4-day march to Montgomery, accompanied by hundreds of Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents ensuring their protection. And finally, just a few months later, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, calling the right to vote “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men”.
Hillel taught “Al tifros min hatzibur” – “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot 2:5). Among many others in the Jewish community, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside MLK and other Civil Rights leaders in the Selma to Montgomery March. Heschel ‘prayed with his legs’ and added significant momentum to the movement for passing the Voting Rights Act. While it has not always been publicized, the relationship between the Black and Jewish community was integral to the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the VRA. In fact, the CRA of 1964 and the VRA of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC). There has always been a valuable Jewish presence in the fight for civil rights, which continues to this day as darker forces are actively trying to take away the right to vote for Americans of color. Currently, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act has passed in the House, but has yet to be passed in the Senate. It is imperative that Jews, African-Americans, and everyone in between be aware of the injustices present in our nation and our communities, and do everything in our power to fully restore the right to vote to all Americans.
By: Samuel Hausman-Weiss