Let Us Not Be Silent: The Jewish Quest for Civil Rights, from Selma to Ferguson
Throughout his life, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached sermons, he often turned to the Book of Exodus to build his homilies. On April 7, 1957, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, a 28-year-old Dr. King began his sermon with these words:
“I would like to use as a basis for our thinking together a story that has long since been stenciled on the mental sheets of succeeding generations. It is the story of the Exodus, the story of the flight of the Hebrew people from the bondage of Egypt, through the wilderness, and finally to the Promised Land. It’s a beautiful story.... This is something of the story of every people struggling for freedom.”
Each year for the past 2,000 years, we Jews have told this story of the Exodus from Egyptian bondage. It is the story of our struggle for freedom. In Exodus, we read of a great leader who spoke truth to power, a man who wouldn't take no for an answer, a man who stood his ground against the cruelty of the ancient Pharaoh.
In so many ways, Dr. King was like our teacher, Moses.
Each year since 1986, on the third Monday in January, we in the United States have observed a national holiday to honor the teachings and memory of Dr. King. But long before the holiday was established, Reform Jews cherished his prophetic leadership – and given the overlapping narratives of Blacks and Jews, we’ve understood each other’s struggles.
In the 1960s, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then-president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), carried a large Torah scroll as he marched with Dr. King to protest the Vietnam War. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise helped found the NAACP, and Jack Greenberg succeeded Thurgood Marshall as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Between one-third and one-half of whites participating in the freedom rides and in the massive voting registration drive for blacks in Mississippi in 1964 were Jews.
The new film Selma tells the inspiring story of Dr. King’s leadership and the struggle for voting rights. Although not reflected in the movie, many Jews marched with Dr. King in Selma. Dr. King’s beloved friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was so moved by Dr. King’s vision for America that he canceled his classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary to march with Dr. King in Selma. A few days before the Selma march, Rabbi Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the brutal treatment of demonstrators in Selma. The delegation was not permitted to enter the FBI building; only Rabbi Heschel was allowed inside to plead his case with the regional FBI director.
Before the Voting Rights Act was drafted, scores of idealists – plenty of them Jewish leaders – were brutally beaten, jailed, and even murdered so that freedom would be a legal right – that couldn’t be thwarted by racist individuals – for U.S. citizens. And it’s important to remember that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were written in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.
Lest any of us think that those landmark bills are merely historical footnotes, let’s connect the Voting Rights Act to Ferguson.
In 1954, when the United States Supreme Court rejected the notion of “separate but equal” schools in its Brown v. Board of Education decision, St. Louis ran the second-largest segregated school district in the country. After the ruling, school officials promised to integrate voluntarily, but the acceleration of white flight and the redrawing of school district lines around black and white neighborhoods allowed metropolitan St. Louis to preserve its racial divide. Nearly 30 years later, 90% of black children in St. Louis still attended predominantly black schools.
On the outskirts of St. Louis, Ferguson’s population is two-thirds African-American, and yet its mayor, city manager, and five of its six city council members are white, as are its police chief and all but three officers on its 53-member police force. The school board of the Ferguson-Florissant School District is much the same: more than three-quarters of the district’s 12,000 students are black, but the seven-member board includes only one African-American member.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the school board under the Voting Rights Act, arguing that the way its members are elected blocks minority voters from participating fully in the political process.
Indeed, it is difficult to remember a time when we have missed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., more than today. As we mourn Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and others, many of us have taken peacefully to the streets as Dr. King taught us to do in the face of injustice. And I have no doubt that Dr. King’s voice would have joined ours as we mourned with the families of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, New York City policemen murdered in Brooklyn last month.
We will not forget what the film Selma leaves out about the Jewish role in the civil rights movement. It reminds us not only of our history but, even more importantly, of what we must do today as we link arms with our partners to shape a more just world – in Ferguson and everywhere.
As people of faith, we must continually renew our commitment to repair the torn social fabric of our society. We must not let cynicism and despair keep us from working toward a society that is truly equal, just, and diverse. Dr. King summoned each of us to shape the world as it ought to be.
Dr. King and those who fought for civil rights then were not silent. We must not be silent now.
Can we be silent when the precious, fundamental right to vote is being attacked?
Can we be silent when our inner city youth are out of school, out of jobs, out of hope?
Can we be silent when access to health care for 35 million, who have never before had health insurance, is challenged and thwarted?
Can we be silent when our children, like Trayvon Martin, are gunned down on our streets every day?
Let our voices serve as a shrill blast of the shofar to awaken our nation to carry on Dr. King’s legacy that we may at last, as he once said, “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” – and reach that Promised Land.
This post is excerpted and adapted from a sermon Rabbi Jacobs prepared for Shabbat services at Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, N.Y., on Jan. 16, 2015.