By all means, go see “Selma.” See it this weekend, when we remember the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The movie is powerful. It manages to feel epic and intimate at the same time; no mean feat. It is heroic yet nuanced; laudable for Hollywood.
Yet Selma is not without issues. One that has already been raised in the media, and by historians, is the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Another, less noticed, is the role of Jews in the famous march. One critic accuses the film of “airbrushing” the Jewish presence out of the movie.
Actually, if you watch it closely, you can see two figures wearing yarmulkes. What is lamentable, however, is the absence of a striking figure with flowing white hair and beard. In an iconic photo from the march, he is one person away from Dr. King. He is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – renowned philosopher, author, and activist.
While it is well known that Heschel, along with several other rabbis, marched with King in Selma, the extent of Heschel’s involvement is much less appreciated. Before going to Selma, Heschel helped organize a demonstration at the FBI headquarters in New York, protesting the treatment of participants in the previous “Bloody Sunday” Selma march. Eight hundred demonstrators converged; only Heschel was allowed into the building to present a petition.
Two years earlier, Heschel had met King for the first time at a National Conference of Christians and Jews meeting in Chicago, where Heschel said memorably that “it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” Fourteen months later, the two again shared a podium at the biannual convention of the Conservative movement, and a day later at a similar gathering of the Reform movement.
Both spoke not only of the civil rights struggle, but of the plight of Soviet Jewry. In 1968, shortly before his death, King lauded Heschel at a gathering of Conservative rabbis, noting that “He has been with us in many of our struggles. I remember marching from Selma to Montgomery; how he stood at my side and with us as we faced that crisis situation.”
It was not only Heschel’s activism that won over King, but the depth of his religious conviction. King most identified with Heschel’s profound insights into the thinking and relevance of the Hebrew prophets. In the January, 2015 issue of Smithsonian magazine, biographer Taylor Branch mentions the weighty influence that one book of Heschel’s in particular had on King and the civil rights movement. After commenting on how King drew inspiration from the Hebrew Bible, he adds that “â€¦all those guys used to carry around Heschel’s book ‘The Prophets.’ They really identified with the prophets.”
Heschel was asked to speak at King’s funeral; he was the only rabbi to do so. It was fitting for the man whom King’s supporters often called “Father Abraham” and who King himself was known to refer to as “my rabbi.”