On Selma anniversary, remembering the civil rights activism of Rabbi Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, participating in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 21, 1965. Credit: Dartmouth College via Wikimedia Commons.

This past weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the march by African-American protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in defiance of racial discrimination. This important event in the history of the American civil rights movement was also a tragic moment because many of the protesters were brutally beaten by police officers.

"The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities—but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech at a ceremony commemorating the anniversary in Selma on Saturday.

The Jewish role in the Selma march does not seem to be frequently acknowledged by the mainstream media. In Selma, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. walked arm in arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

The involvement of Heschel was omitted from the 2014 feature film "Selma," for which the movie has received some criticism. The movie did show King embrace a Greek Orthodox priest, presumably Archbishop Lakovos, who participated in the march. But it did not show any Jewish figures.

Heschel's participation in civil rights activism is well known. In 1963, he spoke at the he National Conference of Christians and Jews conference in Chicago, comparing the African-American struggle for civil rights with Moses's struggle to free the Israelites from Egypt, an allusion that reportedly greatly moved Dr. King.

“It was the greatest day of my father’s life and for him, a holy day. What made my father a hero is that he cared about the needs of other people,” Heschel's daughter, Susannah Heschel, told the Forward.

A nine-minute segment about Rabbi Heschel which aired on PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. It is adapted from the work-in-progress feature-length documentary "Praying With My Legs," and features Bob Abernethy, anchor of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, as correspondent. (c) 2008, Educational Broadcasting Corporation. Winner of the 2009 Angel Award for Excellence in Media.

Posted on March 9, 2015 .