Purim in the Selma Jail: Jewish Activists in 1965

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), marched in Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fr...

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), marched in Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian.

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing series, Not Just Black and White: Civil Rights and the Jewish Community. There is a companion piece here, a timeline of events leading up to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.


According to some estimates, nearly half of the white activists who came to the South during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s were Jewish.

For the demonstrations and marches in Selma in 1965, a large Jewish contingent made its presence known, in the streets and in the jails.

For Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner, it was an uneasy homecoming. He had been rabbi of Mishkan Israel in Selma for eight years in the 1930s, and traveled to Selma on March 17 with four other rabbis from northern California — Saul Berman of Berkeley, Gerald Raiskin of Burlingame, Herbert Teitelbaum of Redwood City and Joseph Weinberg of San Francisco.

Upon arrival in Montgomery, they were driven to Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma by an uncle of Jimmy Lee Jackson, who gave them more details about his nephew’s death. At the church they were cautioned not to leave except in large groups.

Gumbiner wrote that one of Martin Luther King’s assistants announced a protest in Smitherman’s neighborhood, and asked for “the man who was rabbi of Selma some years ago” to co-lead the group.

Baker stopped the procession and said they were under arrest. After Selma’s relatively moderate director of public safety, Wilson Baker, argued with King’s assistant, Gumbiner said they were there for peaceful protest, and as former Selma rabbi he was “not exactly an outsider.”

Baker replied, “I know who you are and I’m ashamed of you. You ought to have better judgment.”

On the bus heading to the jail, Berman related, he told one of the troopers that he sensed the trooper really did not want to be doing this. The response was a swing of a nightstick, just missing Berman’s eye and putting a dent in the back of the seat.

At the jail, Baker offered to release the visitors on their own recognizance, but noting that would not have been offered to them if they were black, they decided to stay as an elevation of their protest.

As the sun set, Purim began. Berman had been doing the Fast of Esther that day, but Baker, in an attempt to get the visitors to leave, said the group had arrived at the jail too late for the 4 p.m. dinner. Berman broke the fast with items from the vending machines.

They explained Purim to the other prisoners, who then wanted to participate in a service. Berman had brought a megillah in his suitcase, but it was at the home where he had been assigned to stay. They managed to get a message to the church, and the megillah was brought to the jail, along with some kosher salami he had brought to Selma. Berman chanted the megillah as Weinberg translated, and they spoke of “redemption which ensued because a few persons had the moral courage to speak up.”

A group, led by an Episcopal priest from Massachusetts, wrote a statement of common concern that they decided to entitle “The Purim of Selma, 5725.”

Berman wrote that he later learned that at Jackson’s funeral at Browns Chapel the minister quoted the Book of Esther, “calling upon those with governmental connections to use their influence to save the blacks, as Mordecai had called upon Esther to do on behalf of the Jewish people of Persia.”

Two Mishkan Israel congregants visited the rabbis in jail. One, a past congregational president, spoke of how the civil rights boycotts had been hurting his business, while the other was one of his former religious school students. They questioned Gumbiner’s presence among the activists, and said the rabbis were hurting the community.

Berman said they “described how the presence of Northern Jewish agitators, particularly rabbis, was promoting hatred of local Jews and making their economic and social lives very difficult to sustain.”

A long discussion ensued. Gumbiner wrote, “They were polite, but remained unconvinced of the propriety of an attack on segregation… surely they had never before been exposed to so many respectable looking white clergymen and laymen united in defending the dignity and sanctity of the human person without respect to race.”

Gumbiner asked, for reasons of professional courtesy, about the current rabbi in Selma, to which he was told that the rabbi teaches at the girls’ academy in Marion. Gumbiner realized that was a subtle way of telling him that any contact with the activists could cause the rabbi to lose his job at the school.

The next morning, almost everyone was released and returned to the church, then divided up among host families in the black community. Gumbiner noted that it was odd not being able to walk freely in the streets where he had been decades earlier. If you sense someone following you, he noted, “you pray that the face you see behind you will turn out to be a Negro face.”

On March 19, a Friday, they had a larger protest in a white neighborhood, and once again were arrested. Though Baker said to leave and there would be no meals and no police protection that night in the makeshift detention facility, they stayed. The rabbis held a Shabbat evening service that concluded with Adon Olam sung to the tune of “We Shall Overcome.” Other clergy then led Christian hymns and freedom songs.

They were released the next morning and the police offered to bus them back to Brown Chapel. Berman would not ride because of Shabbat, and the rest of the group immediately decided to walk with him. “To the dismay of the police, over 300 people walked back from the prison to the safety of the black neighborhood, accompanied by a phalanx of empty buses and police cars.”

That evening, the newly-released group held a Havdalah service at Brown Chapel, fashioning a Havdalah candle from two birthday candles and a spice box from a tin of cloves. It was the last mass meeting before the start of the March to Montgomery, and Gumbiner was asked to be one of the speakers.

The march began on March 21, with thousands departing from Brown Chapel and heading in groups of eight to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Gumbiner saw a couple members of the Selma Jewish community on the sidewalk watching the procession. The rabbis waved them over to join the march, but they “smiled grimly and held their ground.”


Heschel’s “legs were praying”


Perhaps the best-known Jewish participant in the march was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians of the 20th century. His daughter, Susannah Heschel, said her father and King struck up a friendship when Rabbi Heschel gave a lecture in Chicago on religion and race in 1963, “in which he spoke with tremendous passion of the evils of racism.”

Her father grew up in a Chassidic family in Warsaw, and she said their friendship “is such a remarkable story” because of their vastly different backgrounds, but despite that they immediately became close friends.“My father did not have any black colleagues, he taught at a Jewish seminary,” she said.

Rabbi Heschel brought King to a number of Jewish groups to speak, the Jewish Theological Seminary gave King an honorary degree, and they later demonstrated together against U.S. actions in Vietnam.

A few days before visiting Selma, Heschel led a group of 800 protestors to FBI headquarters in New York to protest the “Bloody Sunday” events. Rabbi Heschel was the only one allowed inside the building, where he spoke to the regional FBI director.

On March 19, just before Shabbat, Rabbi Heschel received a telegram from King asking him to come to Selma.

Susannah Heschel said “We knew about Bloody Sunday” and other recent events, such as the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham and the killing of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, and they were naturally fearful.

“It was a Saturday night, my father left, we went downstairs after we made Havdalah,” she said. “I remember quite vividly how he kissed me goodbye and got into a taxi to go to the airport. I remembered thinking, I don’t know if I will ever see him… many people felt that way” when they left for Selma.

But her father gave her “the feeling that this was the most important thing a human being could do at this moment.”
She called it “a religious moment, a moral moment, when America stood up and said this was immoral.”

The interfaith inclusiveness of the Selma march, Susannah Heschel said, is an important element that was not in the recent film “Selma,” which did not portray her father at all.

The film includes scenes in the home of Sullivan Jackson, a prominent black dentist in Selma. “Everybody goes there and they are eating” in the film.

Susannah Heschel has been to Selma twice in recent years and has visited the Jackson home, which is being turned into a museum. “What Mrs. Jackson thought was so extraordinary was that in her home, in her living room-dining room area, there was my father, Dr. King, a Greek Orthodox priest, people all gathered, each one in their corner, praying morning prayers. She thought that was extraordinary… it would have been great to show it in the movie.”

During the march, there was a system for identifying clergy — the Roman collar was used for all Christian clergy, and the yarmulke signified rabbis. That, Gumbiner said, was a “complete failure.” Some of the rabbis had brought a bunch of extras, and when Jewish marchers saw the rabbis, they started wearing yarmulkes as well.

Then non-Jews started asking for them as well, leading to emergency shipments of yarmulkes inscribed with “Freedom Caps,” reminiscent of when 19 Conservative rabbis visited Birmingham in May 1963 and the yarmulkes became popular with black demonstrators.

Berman said it showed “the extreme penetration of the Jewish community” in the movement.

Rabbi Marc Saperstein, was a third-year student at Harvard in 1965. The United Ministry Office asked him to represent Harvard Hillel in Montgomery, so he went for the final day of the march.

Brant Coopersmith, Washington director of the American Jewish Committee, was sent with instructions to lend his expertise to the marchers. Benjamin Epstein, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, led a contingent from ADL.

Though many rabbis came to Selma, they were not universally applauded back home. Al Vorspan, who directed the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, had to visit many congregations that were threatening to fire their rabbis because of their civil rights activism.

Some large Reform congregations temporarily withdrew from the movement because of its outspoken stance on behalf of civil rights, including New York’s Temple Emanuel.

There were also early signs of the fracturing of the black-Jewish alliance in Selma.

The second time the clergy was arrested in Selma, Berman noted, some of the black participants became angry at the presence of the white clergy. In a 2011 JTA interview, Berman noted that “it was a precursor of much more intense feelings of that sort that emerged in the late ‘60s as black leaders began to resent white leaders who felt the civil rights movement was ‘theirs.’ I didn’t recognize the significance of that scene until much later.”

Nevertheless, King maintained close ties with the Jewish community, speaking out on behalf of Israel and addressing the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly on March 25, 1968, less than two weeks before he would be assassinated in Memphis.

At the end of the march, Rabbi Heschel and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath accompanied King. Eisendrath, who carried a Torah, was president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations from 1943 to 1972, and he gave the invocation at the Montgomery rally on March 25.

When Heschel returned home, he gave his famous summation of what had happened during his visit to Alabama. “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.”
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