In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, conveying to the Jewish leader an idea he had for a march. King was planning an unprecedented demonstration, bringing hundreds, maybe thousands, on a walk from Montgomery to Selma.
Dr. King was fighting for voting rights for the black community, and he needed the rabbi’s help.
“The segregationists and racists,” King once said, “make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jew.”
What resulted would go down in history as one of the greatest civil rights moments of all time. Rabbi Eisendrath did indeed participate, as did other spiritual leaders from all factions, political figures, and everyday volunteers.
Rabbi Eisendrath, executive director and president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations until 1973, was joined on the march by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a widely read Jewish theologian.
The pair has been immortalized in an iconic photo from the Selma march, in which Rabbi Eisendrath, clutching a Torah, can be seen standing with Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel.
Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was not a coincidence. The Religious Action Center, the outreach arm of the Reform Movement in the US, was established five decades ago, its aim then as it is now social advocacy. And that advocacy extends outside the Jewish circle.
In the ‘60s, the RAC was paramount in pushing for legislation to promote black rights, and its headquarters in DC saw many groundbreaking moments take place. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, securing the black community the right to vote, were both drafted at the RAC’s library in Washington.
A persecuted community themselves, and often a minority wherever they went, the Jewish people have long supported the ideals Dr. King put forward in his work and his legacy. As Rabbi Heschel said upon completing that revolutionary walk in 1965, “When I marched in Selma, it felt like my legs were praying.”