Selma‘s Missing Rabbi

Ava DuVernay’s film Selma is a remarkable depiction of a key moment in the Civil Rights movement, highlighting the strategic savvy, relentless courage, and human frailties of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his inner circle of advisors, local grassroots activists, and the many other crusaders who traveled to this rural town to draw attention to the need for a voting rights bill in 1965. Although Selma was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film, critics are justifiably outraged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ failure to nominate director DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo, who played King.

Selma has triggered controversy for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant ally of the Civil Rights movement. That debate is over a contentious sin of commission. But critics could also fault the film for a glaring sin of omission—the absence of identifiable Jews and Jewish clergy, particularly Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Civil Rights activists marching

Marching from Selma: John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Credit: Creative Commons.

DuVernay was understandably and justifiably making a movie about a movement led and populated primarily by black people. Indeed, we don’t need another film about the Civil Rights movement—like Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi, and The Help—that focuses primarily on white allies and sympathizers.

The campaign for voting rights in Selma was started by local African American activists and boosted by organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their work made it possible for King to pick Selma as a launching pad for a renewed drive to push LBJ and Congress to enact a federal law guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote without poll taxes, literacy tests, and other restrictions. King urged civil rights activists—black and white—from around the country to come to Selma in order to attract national media to cover the protest.

In addition to King and his wife Coretta, the film portrays many of the movement’s key leaders, including John Lewis, James Forman, and Diane Nash of SNCC, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, Andrew Young, and James Orange of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King’s organization), veteran Selma activist Amelia Boynton, King’s sometime rival Malcolm X, and many unsung rank-and-file activists (one of them, Annie Lee Cooper, brilliantly played by Oprah Winfrey).

Selma does show that the Selma-to-Montgomery march involved a significant number of white supporters. The film also reveals that many white clergy, wearing clerical collars and other religious garb, participated in the Selma events. In one scene, King hugs a Greek Orthodox prelate (surely meant to be Archbishop Iakovos) who made his way to Selma. Another scene shows a group of white segregationist thugs beating and killing James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who came to Selma to join the march.

But missing from the movie is any depiction of even one Jewish rabbi participating in the Selma crusade. The omission of Heschel is particularly conspicuous because of the well-known iconic photograph of him—with his long white beard and his yarmulke, looking like the stereotype of a Biblical prophet—joining King in the front row of the Selma protest. Including Heschel would not diminish the film’s emphasis on the centrality of African Americans in the civil rights struggle, but it would have lent the film more historical accuracy, not simply about one man but as a representative of the role Jews played in the freedom struggle and as a reflection of the Civil Rights movement’s inclusiveness.

Three Marches

As the film reveals, there were actually three marches that began in Selma and were supposed to end in Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, as part of the Civil Rights movement’s campaign to pressure Johnson and Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The first march began on March 7 with 600 marchers. State troopers and local cops attacked the unarmed marchers with tear gas and billy clubs while the activists were trying to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” ended on the bridge. Two days later, the marchers tried again. The presence of national media intimidated the state troopers, who stepped aside the let the marchers pass, but—as depicted in the film—King, after getting down on his knees to pray, had second thoughts. He turned around the led the marchers back to a church. He later contacted federal officials, demanding that they protect the protesters along the entire fifty-four-mile march because Alabama Governor George Wallace refused to do so.

On March 15, President Johnson delivered his most famous speech before a televised joint session of Congress, where he announced that he would introduce a voting rights bill and uttered the phrase “we shall overcome” to declare his solidarity with the Civil Rights movement. King believed that the momentum had shifted and decided to resume the march. LBJ committed to send in the U.S. Army, the Alabama National Guard (under federal command), federal marshals, and the FBI to guarantee the marchers’ safety. The third march began on March 21. They arrived in Montgomery three days later and held a huge rally the following day at the State Capitol building.

Rabbis and the Civil Rights Movement

Among white activists in the Civil Rights movement, Jews – secular and religious—were disproportionately involved. But rabbis, mostly from the North and California, were particularly visible because they usually wore yarmulkes at rallies, meetings, and protests. Rabbis were part of the lunch counter sit-ins, the perilous Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington (where Rabbi Uri Miller gave the opening prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke prior to King’s “I Have a Dream” oration), and local efforts to integrate schools and challenge racial discrimination in housing. In 1964, King asked his friend Rabbi Israel “Sy” Dresner of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, New Jersey to recruit other rabbis to participate in a protest campaign in St. Augustine, Florida, a hotbed of segregationist resistance. All sixteen rabbis, including Dresner, were arrested for engaging in a nonviolent demonstration at the segregated Monson Motor Lodge.

Only a few Southern rabbis participated in the movement, as documented in Mark Bauman and Berkley Kalin’s The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s and Clive Webb’s Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights. Most Southern rabbis were reluctant to be too conspicuous in light of Jews’ precarious social position in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Only a handful of Southern Jews were hard-line segregationists. Most Southern Jews were moderates on racial issues and quite a few were liberals. Some were openly supportive of civil rights and many were quietly helpful—for example, by making financial contributions to civil rights organizations.

Many Southern Jews feared that visible Jewish activism in the movement would trigger a hostile backlash among anti-Semites, including boycotts of Jewish-owned stores, Jewish lawyers and other professionals, and violence targeted at Jewish homes. Many Southern synagogues were bombed and burned during the Civil Rights movement. In October 1958, for example, segregationists bombed Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, whose Reform rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, was an early and outspoken supporter of racial integration and a friend of Dr. King. This and other violent incidents certainly led many Southern rabbis and congregations to fear it could happen to them if they lent their support to the movement for racial equality.

Most of the rabbis who came to Selma 50 years ago represented Judaism’s Reform wing, the most liberal of the factions within organized Jewry, but a number of rabbis from the more religiously traditional Conservative and Orthodox wings joined them. In addition to Dresner, the marchers included many other rabbis as well.

But in the front row of the march, only two persons to the right of King (with Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche between them), was Heschel. The iconic photo shows the marchers in the front line incongruously wearing flower leis, which a minister from Hawaii had just given them.

Anyone familiar with the events at Selma is aware of that photo and of Heschel’s presence. All film directors have the artistic freedom to decide how they want to portray historical events, but Heschel’s absence from that scene in the movie could not be an simple oversight.

King—who was close to many Jews, including Jewish clergy—called Heschel “my rabbi.” In many ways, Heschel was an unlikely activist. His transformation from Talmudic scholar to civil rights and anti-war protester is a remarkable story on its own.

Heschel: Scholar and Activist

Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland. His parents were Hasidim, members of a spiritually intense Orthodox Jewish sect, and descended from generations of distinguished rabbis. As a teenager, he demonstrated a precocious ability to understand lengthy treatises of Jewish law and to write his own commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. He also had a personal charisma that others saw as confirmation of his spiritual and leadership qualities.

But Heschel resisted this destiny. On a daily basis, he continued to practice Orthodox rituals, but his intellectual curiosity would not allow him to follow the path chosen for him. He convinced his family to let him attend a secular university and a liberal nontraditional rabbinical college. He first went to a secular high school in Vilnius, Lithuania, then to the University of Berlin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1934 for a dissertation on the Hebrew prophets. The next year, he completed his studies at the rabbinical college. He emerged from this education well versed in Western philosophy, history, and art as well as Jewish subjects.

The 1935 publication of his revised dissertation made his reputation as a major scholar. The book advanced the then-radical thesis that the Hebrew prophets were serious critics of the social injustices of their eras but that their ideas remained relevant to injustices in contemporary times.

It would have been difficult for Heschel to avoid thinking about social injustice; his academic career began just as the Nazis took power in Germany. He was deported back to Poland in 1938, then fled to England. In 1940 he found haven at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, the seminary that trained Reform Jewish rabbis, as part of an effort to rescue European Jewish scholars from the Nazis. While living in Cincinnati, he tried to rescue his family members, including his mother and three sisters, but without success: they were murdered by the Nazis.

In 1945 Heschel moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, the rabbinical seminary linked to Conservative Judaism, a branch more closely aligned with Heschel’s religious views but less comfortable with what would become his progressive political activities. At JTS he published several important books on Jewish theology, including Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951), The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1955), and Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (1954).

Heschel’s knowledge of Christian theology led the Vatican to seek his advice when, in 1960, Pope John XXIII sought to repair relations between Catholics and Jews as part of the Ecumenical Council, the original name of the Second Vatican Council. Over four years, Heschel met with the pope’s representatives and with the pope himself. He had a significant influence on what became the landmark 1965 statement “Nostra Aetate” (In our time), a turning point in Christian-Jewish relations. It reversed centuries of standard Christian teachings about Jews, including no longer blaming Jews collectively for the death of Jesus and refraining from calling for Jews to convert to Catholicism.

Heschel and King

In January 1963, as the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum, the National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored a conference in Chicago entitled “Religion and Race.” It was there that Heschel (who was asked to deliver the opening address) first met King (who gave the closing speech).

Heschel, with a thick Yiddish accent, began his remarks by linking biblical history to contemporary struggles:

At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’s words were, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.’ While Pharaoh retorted: ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.’ The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.

Later that year, Heschel was invited to a meeting of religious leaders with President John F. Kennedy. The day before the event, Heschel sent the president a telegram about civil rights, asking him to declare the nation’s racial inequality a “state of moral emergency” and to act with “high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

King and Heschel stayed in close touch, sharing both theological and political ideas. After the first Selma march, “Bloody Sunday,” Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the agency’s failure to protect the demonstrators.

On Friday, March 19, Heschel received a telegram from King inviting him to join the third march from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel flew to Selma from New York on Saturday night and was welcomed as one of the leaders into the front row of marchers, with King, Ralph Bunche, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The photograph of Heschel walking arm in arm with King has become iconic of the coalition of Jews and blacks during the civil rights era.

Heschel later 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.

Anti-war Crusader

Heschel was also the most visible traditional Jew in the anti-war movement. Having escaped Nazism, Heschel was acutely aware of the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. “In regard to the cruelties committed in the name of a free society,” he wrote, “some are guilty, all are responsible.” In announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War, he cited Leviticus: “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” Opposition to the war, he declared, was a religious obligation, “a supreme commandment.”

He worried that most Americans were indifferent to what he described as the criminal behavior of their elected government. “I have previously thought that we were waging war reluctantly, with sadness at killing so many people,” he wrote about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. “I realize that we are doing it now with pride in our military efficiency.”

In October 1965 Heschel spoke at an anti-war rally at the UN Church Center and proposed a national religious movement to end the war. He quickly went to work putting that idea into practice. The National Emergency Committee of Clergy Concerned about Vietnam was founded in January 1966, with Heschel, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus as cochairs. Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain, agreed to be acting executive secretary.

Their first act was to send a telegram to LBJ, signed by twenty-one clergy, including King and prominent Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, urging the president to extend the bombing halt that had begun the previous Christmas and to pursue negotiations with the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese. Over the next few months, the group recruited additional clergy and organized rallies, fasts, vigils, and other forms of protest. Heschel drafted position papers, raised money, recruited Jewish clergy, gave numerous speeches, and led a two-day fast at a New York church to push for an end to US bombing of North Vietnam.

On January 31, 1967, the organization—renamed Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV) to be more inclusive—organized its first Washington, D.C., rally. More than 2,000 people, clergy and laity, from forty-five states participated, including the leaders of the nation’s major Jewish and Protestant denominations. They met with their congressional representatives and picketed in front of the White House. Heschel electrified the audience with his speech, “The Moral Outrage in Vietnam,” later published in Fellowship, the magazine of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation:

Who would have believed that we life-loving Americans are capable of bringing death and destruction to so many innocent people? We are startled to discover how unmerciful, how beastly we ourselves can be. In the sight of so many thousands of civilians and soldiers slain, injured, crippled, of bodies emaciated, of forests destroyed by fire, God confronts us with this question: Where art thou?

The next day, Heschel joined a small CALCAV delegation in a forty-minute meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They attempted, without success, to persuade him to suspend the bombing of North Vietnam and begin peace negotiations. By early 1967, CALCAV’s leaders knew that King was preparing to make public his growing opposition to the war. Heschel, along with other major religious figures, accompanied him as he delivered his major antiwar address at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4.

During the 1968 annual meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly, Heschel was honored by his fellow Conservative rabbis for his social activism and his contributions to Jewish scholarship. King was the keynote speaker, and the rabbis feted him by singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew.

King was looking forward to attending a Passover Seder at Heschel’s home that year, but he was assassinated a few weeks before the Jewish holiday. Heschel was the only Jew to speak at the memorial service for King at Morehouse College in Atlanta.


3 thoughts on “Selma‘s Missing Rabbi

  1. I went into the movie keeping an eye out for any Jewish presence, particularly Heschel’s. If you go back and watch it again, you will count two men with kipas who appear in the foreground within 10 minutes of each other albeit only for moments at a time. During the first march, you see a man standing in the second line just behind Dr. King– likely Heschel. Later, when King retreats from the end of the bridge, he passes through the crowd of marchers and a baldheaded kipa-wearing man is seen in a close-up to the left of King. They are not featured, but as a film school student, I know the importance of maintaining brevity to keep a movie rolling along, and Duvernay did not need to explore our Jewish narrative if she was going to make a concise and well-paced film.

    There are lots of factors that went into the success of the Civil Rights Movement (including progressive Jews), and many of them are left out of the movie. It’s self-centered to focus on the omission that directly relates to us, and factually incorrect to say that “missing from the movie is any depiction of even one Jewish rabbi.” It displays an over-eagerness to make your otherwise well written, informative, and important article relevant. Let’s cease with the attacks on Duvernay. It’s a fine movie, and you can share the story of Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement in a non-combative way.

  2. Selma was not a great movie.
    It wasn’t even a good movie.
    The snide attack on the SNCC is unforgivable — a huge part of the movement is reduced to one person and he’s portrayed wrongly as petty and infantile.
    As a Black woman I do not appreciate some woman from public relations crafting a version of Dr. King that she thinks will sell to the masses. Dr. King was not about elections, as the film tries to argue at the end, he was about transforming society.
    I realize most people didn’t see the film, it bombed at the box office. But those who did who care about social justice did not rush to praise it. I’ll suggest two commentaries and leave it at that:

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