This is the sermon my grandfather (ZT”L) wrote after he marched with Martin Luther King from Selma, Alabama. Being MLK day, I thought it was appropriate and you might enjoy reading it!
March 26, 1965
Rabbi Maurice Davis
Your ministers, and your priests were there in Alabama. If not your own particular clergyman, his colleagues were. And those that went were not more noble than those who stayed at home. They just were luckier. In the life of a clergyman his first responsibility is to his congregation, and there are many events that should and must take precedence. There are commitments that would have kept anyone of us at home.
I was fortunate to have had no such crucial commitments for Sunday, March 21. David Goldstein accompanied me, and we flew to Atlanta on Saturday night. We spent the evening there, and Sunday at 7:00am we flew to Montgomery. It was a flight filled with clergymen. Rabbis, and ministers, and priests took almost every seat. Seated next to me were Rabbi Wolf Kelman, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, both of the Conservative movement, the latter a former professor of mine at the Hebrew Union College. At Montgomery we were met by Brant Coopersmith of the American Jewish Committee, and a Negro physician from Birmingham, Dr. Upshaw, who drove us to Selma.
Dr. Upshaw drove very carefully. It is not wise for a Negro to speed on the highways of Alabama. As we approached Selma we saw the Army begin to position itself. Jeeps and trucks filled with soldiers, hospital units, and communications experts clustered along the way. Arriving in Selma, we headed for Browns Chapel Methodist Church where services would take place. The road leading to the Church was lined with National Guardsmen, recently federalized. As we turned into that road, six of them stepped out in front of our car holding their rifles in a position of readiness. One approached the car, stared in at us, but said never a word. In a very polite and subdued voice Dr. Upshaw asked, “How does one get to that church?” The guardsman turned his back on us, waved a hand to those that blocked the way, and we drove through.
It was 8 o’clock in the morning. Services were scheduled for 11:00am. On the steps of the church and in the streets were a thousand people already waiting. From 8:00 until 11:00 they kept streaming in, with never a pause. Many of the people there were friends of mine from other cities and other states. A holiday mood was in the air. From the stone steps if the church various people went to the microphone, and took turns leading the group in song.
They sang such songs as:
“Freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me!
And before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord, and be free.
We shall overcome. We shall overcome.
We shall overcome some day.
Deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome some day!”
There were other songs of less somber note such as:
“I love Governor Wallace in my heart.”
After a while I left with some of my friends to visit the Negro homes in the neighborhood where they had stayed the past few nights. One rabbi said to me, “You can’t buy any food in the Negro neighborhood in Selma. You can’t buy it, because they give it to you. You can’t pay for lodging, because they give it to you.” Tiny houses had opened wide in wondrous hospitality.
An elderly Negro lady and her grandchild approached me to say, “In all my life I never dreamed that such a day as this could be!” I talked to a Negro teen-aged girl, and asked her if she planned to march. She shook her head no. I asked her if she resented our being there. She shook her head no. I asked her if she thought any good would come of this. She said. “Maybe, but after you leave they’ll still call me the same names they called me before you came.”
We returned to the church, and I noticed that all the Reform rabbis were wearing yarmelkes. When I questioned this, I was told, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” Clergymen of every denomination, from Roman Catholicism to Unitarianism were wearing clerical collars to show they were clergymen. Rabbis of all branches of Judaism were wearing yarmelkes.
I tried to get one, but I could not. I learned later that they sent back for a thousand yarmelkes but all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them. Negro children and white marchers were all sporting yarmelkes.
The five Rabbis who had been jailed on Friday had held services in prison. When they were released they announced that on Saturday night they would hold a Havdallah service and were given the use of Browns Chapel. When they arrived there on Saturday night they found 600 people waiting. Negroes and white, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews were waiting for that religious service which marked the close of the Jewish Sabbath. That is where all the yarmelkes went!
About 10:15 in the morning the Reverend Martin Luther King, and his assistants, Reverend Young and Reverend Abernathy, climbed the steps of the church. Beyond the steps the entrance to the church was cleared except for dignitaries. Rabbi Raiskin of California asked if I would represent the UAHC (Union of American Hebrew Congregations). When I agreed, two men lifted me up by my arms above the lectern with its many microphones, and literally pulled me up to the platform. I chatted briefly with Reverend King, and the service began.
It was a deeply moving, deeply religious, and totally non-sectarian service. Rabbi Heschel read from our Bible, a Protestant minister read from the New Testament, and a Catholic Priest offered a beautifully moving prayer. Then Reverend King began again to weave his magic spell. Nothing but the word “magic” can quite describe what it is he does to so many. When King speaks, you are not an audience. You are participants. And when he finished we were ready to march.
Reverend Abernathy announced the order of the march. The several thousand people would march in rows of 8, and the first three rows would be lead by men and women chosen by Martin Luther King. He read off the names, and I was thrilled to hear my name called out as one of the leaders.
We twenty-four entered the chapel, were given our assignments, and then marched out. On the street we formed three rows of 8, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow. In front of us the television camera men, the news photographers, and the reporters walked backwards, facing King, and trying to press in on him. Finally 12 workers locked arms in front of the first row to keep King from getting crushed.
We came to the bridge which had marked the terminal point of two previous attempts. On one of those attempts, King had turned his people back at this spot. On the other attempt, the state troopers had ridden into the crowd with clubs, and bullwhips, and tear gas. We paused there a moment, just to remember, and then we moved out on the highway. It was a divided highway, and the North side was reserved for us. Every few yards a soldier stood with a rifle and bayonet. Army cars drove ahead of us and behind us. In the air five helicopters circled endlessly, occasionally swooping down just above a clump of trees or bushes. Radios and walkie-talkies crackled orders back and forth. State troopers drove by in squad cars, two to a car. One drove, and the other quite ostentatiously took pictures of the marches. This is an Alabama form of intimidation. I kept remembering that these were the same state troopers who had two weeks earlier had ridden mercilessly into a defenseless mass of people! I marveled again at the power of the federal government whose presence stood between us and another massacre.
We kept on marching; on my left a Catholic Priest from San Antonio, on my right, a young girl from the staff of Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the first row were King, Abernathy, and Young, Ralph Bunche, whose doctor had ordered him not to march, Abraham Heschel, whose white flowing beard stood out in contrast, and Deaconess Phyllis Edwards of the Episcopal Diocese of California.
Along the road were groups of people standing. Negroes waved, wept, prayed, and shouted out words of encouragement. There were whites who taunted, jeered, cursed. Other whites just stood with stark amazement at this incredible site, for which they could find neither rhyme nor reason. On the other side of the divided highway there was a parked car, a Volkswagon, painted with many signs. Six of us broke rank, and went over to the car. The signs were signs of hatred and of filth, taunting even the death of Reverend Reed. We stood there taking pictures while those inside glared and cursed.
Down the road a bit the scene was repeated. We passed a charming white house, on the lawn of which a kindly matronly white woman sat with her children and grandchildren. It was the picture one associates with the story-book South. And on the side of her house were signs which read, “Dirty communist clergy go home,” and “Integrationist scum stay away!” The contrast was shocking, but the people who marched were merely amused. “Somebody tell her,” one of the marchers said, “We hadn’t planned to stop there in the first place.”
There had been much singing at the church, but on the highway there was very little. One of the reasons might have been that the rows stretched out in endless array. More significant, however, was that our thoughts had turned inward. Everyone seemed to be asking his neighbor two questions, “What are you thinking?” and “What do you think they are thinking?”
Some of them were dressed as beatniks, some were dressed as day laborers, some were dressed in the vestments of the church, and most were dressed in their Sunday best. A seven year old boy joined my line. I asked him, “What are you doing?” He said, “Marching.” I asked him, “Why are you marching?” He looked up at me and said, “For my freedom.”
After about five miles, we took a 10-minute break. I used that time to go back through the crowds for pictures, and then the march continued. At one point I left the march entirely, and stood on the divider strip. I thought to take movies of the entire group as it passed me by. I could not. The film ran out long before the lines did. But standing there almost as if in review, I saw the enormity of it all. I saw friends I hadn’t seen for years. I saw strangers who were no longer strangers. I saw a group from Hawaii who had traveled 5000 miles just to march. They carried a banner that said, “Hawaii Knows Integration Works!” I saw a man with one leg. His right leg had been amputated at the knee, but he marched right along with the rest on crutches. I ran back to catch up with my line at the front. Finally after about 13 miles, and about 5 ½ hours of marching we approached the camp site. The helicopters hovered a few feet above our heads in stationary position. The road was lines with people who cheered and waved, and there were tears in the eyes of many.
Once we stopped at the camp site several things began to occur to me. The first was that I had neither eaten nor drunk anything for more than twelve hours. I had not even sat down once in those twelve hours. My left foot had blistered painfully. And I had experienced a religious exaltation which I had never witnessed before.
An hour later we were in a car headed for Montgomery. Only 300 were permitted to remain. We prayed for their safety, we hoped for the best, and we feared the worst.
That night instead of returning to Atlanta, I got on a chartered plane to Cincinnati where my father-in-law lay ill in the hospital. I arrived there at midnight, and spent what was left of that night with him and my mother-in-law. At 7:00 A.M. I flew into Indianapolis.
Reporters and television men interviewed me most of Monday. Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis. Protective measures has to be taken for my children, and my home. On Tuesday night the phone began to ring at 2:00 A.M. Each time I answered it, I was greeted with silence, until I took the phone off the hook and fell asleep. Some of the mail I have received is filled with unbelievable filth, ugly statements, and – interestingly enough – disclosing knowledge about my life, including my previous pulpit in Lexington, Kentucky.
Some of the letters I have received are beautiful beyond the power of words to describe, and some of the phone calls have been so moving that they brought tears to my eyes.
Brotherhood postponed. Dear friends, brotherhood has been postponed for a very long time. Not by the coldness of the weather, but by the coldness of the heart. The task of religion, your religion and mine, is to practice brotherhood, not talk about it.
People keep asking me why I decided to go to Alabama. I’m not sure that even now I know the answer. I think I went to Alabama to worship God! I know that is what I did on U.S. Highway 80, along with 6,000 men and women, boys and girls, each of whom in his own way was doing the same thing.
Last night we learned that one of us had been murdered on that highway. I think all of us died a little bit at the news. This morning the President announced that four members of the Ku Klux Klan had been arrested, and he added these words: “If Klansmen hear my voice today, let it be both an appeal – and a warning – to get out of the Klan now, and return to a decent society – before it is too late!”
Brotherhood postponed. The time has come, and it has been a long time in coming. The time has come to worship with our lives as with our lips, in the streets as in the sanctuaries. And we who dare to call God, God, must begin to learn the challenge which that word contains.
“One God over all” has to mean “One brotherhood over all.” And I know a bunch of anonymous people for whom it means precisely that. Brotherhood postponed does not mean brotherhood destroyed. It is for us to see that it never, never does! Amen.