Fifty years ago, on March 25, 1965, Selma, Alabama became the center of the universe. (Re-created recently by Hollywood in the film, Selma.) People around the world watched and waited to see if America was up to the challenge put before it by the Civil Rights Movement. Thirty-five years later, President Bill Clinton commented on his visit to Selma for the anniversary:
I was thinking, when I was in Selma Sunday and we were walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, what an important role the faith community of that day had in the civil rights movement. And there was an elderly woman there who was 90 years old, who was telling me about a rabbi who came to march with them. And I think it was Rabbi Heschel, but I'm not sure because she didn't remember, but I think that's who it must be. And the rabbi had a very, very long beard, and she said, "You know, a lot of us thought God, himself, had come down to Earth to go with us."
Yes, it was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched there at the head of the line with Dr. Martin Luther King. (After the march, Heschel wrote about the experience in a private memo, I felt my legs were praying.) When we see that picture today, we forget that the marchers at the front were the first to be struck by water cannons, first to be beaten by billy-club wielding police, first to be struck by police dogs and horses, and of course, first to be arrested. When Rabbi Heschel went to Selma that March, his 15 year-old daughter Susannah remembers feeling that she would never see her father alive again.
The courage and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and his rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, remain untarnished these decades later. In fact, we miss their presence dearly. Who are our children's heroes? More likely than not, they are movie stars, musicians, and sports figures, but certainly not public figures and probably least likely religious leaders. Clinton's observation about the significant role of "the faith community" in leading the civil rights movement is a historical fact, and a spiritual challenge.
This week our children here at the Gordon School have been learning about Dr. King and some history of the civil rights movement. Some have learned about the personal relationship between King and Heschel and about the parallelism of their thought. Throughout the year we teach them to consider those in our society who continue to suffer from poverty and its many by-products. We do our part, but something remains missing and the children know it.
We are leaderless. No great figures stand before us with word and action that inspire. There can be little doubt that were Heschel and King still with us, they would be leading imaginative international efforts to secure a peace in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians. It may be that this is the most important part of our mission at the Gordon School and our sister schools around the country: to create the climate and teach the wisdom that will insure that from our children will emerge leaders; people of vision and social, economic, and political creativity who will become the models for their generation.
As Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel together led the religious community's opposition to the War in Vietnam years ago, if they were here they would be standing above the day to day, carving a path of peace and justice. Their words, so very similar in tone and direction still speak to us today; still summon the rush of emotion that came to the hearts of any and all who heard them speak:
"The ultimate measure of a (person) is not where he (or she) stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he (or she) stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his or her position, prestige, and even life for the welfare of others."Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers in himself harms done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, who greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
This morning our 4th graders inspired us in their presentation of the thought and ideals of Dr. King. Kol Ha'Kavod to grade 4.