Black History Month Event Celebrates Rabbi’s Civil Rights Work

February 20, 2014

“We were experiencing something very holy and I felt my feet were praying,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as he stepped forward in the symbolic march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, on March 9, 1965. He was walking alongside the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Two days earlier, on “Bloody Sunday,” some 600 civil rights marchers had been attacked by state and local law enforcement officers with billy clubs and tear gas, and were driven back across the bridge to Selma.

Before leaving home to travel to Alabama to join Dr. King for the March 9 action, the rabbi explained his departure to his young daughter. Susannah Heschel, the rabbi’s only child, was only 8 years old then, but she still remembers what he said to her before leaving New York City: “Remember, Suzie, this [displaying your faith through deeds], is the most important thing a person can do.”

Susannah Heschel, now 57, told that story to an audience of students, faculty and community gathered earlier this week in the Greenfelder-Denlinger Boardrooms of the Student Community Center at University Campus. Dr. Heschel is now the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College, and an award-winning author. Her deceased father is now remembered as a prominent Jewish scholar, philosopher, and social activist. Dr. Heschel’s presentation on her father’s faith was sponsored by the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo in honor of Black History Month.

Dr. Heschel explained that her father and Dr. King first met in 1963 at a religion and race conference in Chicago. They immediately forged a strong friendship. “The Bible brought a Jew from Poland and a black from the South together,” said Dr. Heschel. She used the analogy of Pharaoh and Moses participating in the first religion and race conference. Like the leaders in the Old Testament, her father and Dr. King provided prophetic voices during the civil rights movement, and later, the Vietnam War.

Sadly, the Jews did not receive much support in the struggle for civil rights in America. During that volatile time, political issues and moral issues were intertwined. Her father’s belief was to never be satisfied because there would always be challenges. “What was gained by one hand can easily be taken away by the other,” he often said.

Dr. Heschel also shared several precepts her father conveyed during a gathering in April 1967 in New York, where Dr. King also spoke. Rabbi Heschel advised:

  • “No victory is worth the price of terror. The blood of the innocent cries forever.”
  • “The opposite of good is not evil, but rather indifference.”
  • “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

In closing, Dr. Heschel recalled attending a rabbinical convention in 1963 at the Concord Hotel in the Catskill Mountains where her father was being honored for his social activism, and Dr. King was the guest speaker. When he entered the room filled with a thousand rabbis, they linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew.

The elder Heschel, speaking of Dr. King as a modern-day prophet, said: “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us…his mission is sacred…I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the influence of Dr. King.”