On March 7, 1965, civil rights leaders led 600 peaceful marchers from Selma towards Montgomery, AL, in pursuit of voting rights, but were stopped after just six blocks. The marchers were brutally attacked by police as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Images of the confrontation were televised across the country and the world, horrifying citizens and rousing much-needed, broad public support for voting rights. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday” and helped lead to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act later that year.
Fifty years later, on Sunday, March 8, 2015, Jews from across the country commemorated the anniversary of Bloody Sunday with a program at Temple Mishkan Israel, the historic Reform synagogue in Selma. Following remarks from Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Susannah Heschel, Rev. Dr. William Barber, and David Goodman; HUC-JIR President Rabbi Aaron D. Panken offered a closing prayer before marching across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge. His remarks are below.
As we conclude our commemoration on this sacred day, our hearts and our minds overflow with the images of the period, the places and the people we remember.
The period: frightening moments when grim, unabashed hatred battered the good and robbed them of life, limb and opportunity; when authorities looked to for leadership, morality and fairness, used their immense influence for evil and not for good; and when the powerless suffered mightily at the hand of those who held them down.
And yet, it was a time when undaunted courage and deep commitment rose up to conquer ignorance and prejudice, a moment when what appeared to be impossible, became possible through the concerted actions, of a committed, fearless, community of seekers of justice, who would not desist until hard won freedom and equality became reality.
Today, as we walk, we walk the corridors of time and honor the memory of this period.
We remember the places, where heroism expressed itself in the acts of so many, where Americans of all race, color, creed, and origin came together, and walked proudly on into history. The small towns and the large cities, the Edmond Pettus bridge in Selma, the prison in Saint Augustine, the voter registration tables, lunch counters and on buses, the churches and synagogues, the thousands of places where a vision of a better world welled up and grew, places where long traditions of hatred were eventually shaken off, places where people knew that what was right must, eventually, come to exist, places where our forebears moved the world from injustice to justice, through their self-sacrificing acts that defied danger.
Today, as we walk, we walk the streets of these communities, and we honor the memory of what happened in these places.
Perhaps most of all, we, as members of a Jewish community, united with all humanity, remember the people who risked their lives “letakken et ha-olam,” “to better the world.” We are just a few weeks away from Pesach, our season of liberation, and we celebrate all those people who served as liberators. Brave Rabbis who were imprisoned and attacked for a cause greater than themselves; decent, committed Jewish leaders who came to register voters, support protesters and march alongside those who faced oppression; those who risked their lives, and those who gave their lives. Our people, who understand slavery and oppression, linked, inexorably, with a community that was experiencing its terrible impact.
Today, as we walk, we walk in the footsteps of these great individuals, and we honor the memory of their actions.
I close with the words of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke about the Jewish community, and pointed out an essential truth that he learned from being with us:
“Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential. Social action without education is a weak expression of pure energy. Deeds uninformed by educated thought can take false directions. When we go into action and confront our adversaries, we must be as armed with knowledge as they. Our policies should have the strength of deep analysis beneath them to be able to challenge the clever sophistries of our opponents.”
Let us, then, on this day of commemoration, commit ourselves anew, to learning and leading toward justice, to raising up a new generation of educated leaders, who, with strength and knowledge, will continue to lead our Jewish community once again into the forefront of changing this world for the better.
Today, as we walk, we walk with hope, not because our work is done, but because if we commit ourselves, we, too, can have the strength to complete it.