On Monday, January 19, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I invited my 9th grade students to join me as we watched “Selma,” the recent movie directed by Oprah Winfrey. My 9th grade class curriculum focuses on the history of Reform Judaism, specifically focusing on growing up as a Jew in the South. Prior to our trip to Selma, Alabama, in March, we will be spending some time at The Temple on Peachtree Street learning about and discussing the role the Atlanta Jewish community played in the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century. Of course, with the release of “Selma,” I believed this to be a great introduction for my students.
Having recently read “What Selma Means to the Jews” by Dr. Susannah Heschel, I was keenly aware of some of the criticism that has been given to “Selma.” The criticism specified in Dr. Heschel’s Op-Ed seems to focus on a few key points. In the first paragraph, Dr. Heschel writes, “Regrettably, the film represents the march as many see it today, only as an act of political protest.” Yes, it is true – the film does focus on the politics of the Civil Rights Movement. However, there is also a special focus on Dr. King’s invitation to clergy nationwide to join him in Selma. The movie’s emphasis on this invitation is significant. As a matter of fact, the brutal murder of one of these ministers happens to be one of the most difficult and tense scenes in the entire movie. In my opinion, the most spiritually uplifting scene in the movie occurs when Dr. King knelt down to pray and then turned around and walked the other direction, back from where he came.
As a rabbi, I have always appreciated Dr. King’s comparison of the march from Selma to the Exodus of the Jews out of Egypt. Dr. Heschel writes about this as well in her Op-Ed: “Not only were the Israelites leaving Egypt, the place of enslavement, but also the Egyptians, because there was a hope at Selma that white America was repudiating its racism.” It is true that we still have a long way to go in this country in order to finish the “Exodus from Selma.” However, the march was a great step and a foundational moment in our history. This cannot be ignored, just as any first step in achieving the prophetic vision of total justice for all peoples.
The most significant criticism of “Selma” was that there was not more of a focus on the relationship between Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel had a very special relationship. The very famous picture of Rabbi Heschel walking alongside Dr. King, Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttleworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian is one of the most well known artifacts from the Civil Rights period. While the picture represents a future filled with hope, one in which justice can be achieved, the focus of “Selma” was on the struggle of African Americans and the eventual outcome.
As a rabbi in the South, I understand completely the significance of the shared history of Blacks and Jews. When I walked out of the movie theater, I was not upset or frustrated that there was not more of a focus on the Jewish community and their role. I was not upset that a particular person or group was not included. I was inspired, not only by the actors and the roles they played, but also by the message from 50 years ago that still applies today.
“…Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24)