The Martin Luther King biopic Selma might have a bigger historical problem than its treatment of Lyndon B. Johnson–it leaves out all the Jews involved in the civil rights movement!
Thankfully, the Jewish Daily Forward calls out this glaring omission and points to the large role Jews had in transforming American society. But in contrast to the argument put forward by other Jews that the chosen few aren’t European, this author considers her tribe White.
Anyway, here’s the rebuttal to Selma‘s “airbrushing” of history:
But those marches actually built on momentum generated by thousands of local efforts during the preceding months and years. Among the most significant were the 1964 Freedom Rides, in which well over a thousand volunteers, mostly white, and over half of them Jewish, risked their lives riding into Mississippi to face intimidation and harassment that included arrests, beatings, and murder. Among those providing support for the coalition of the Mississippi branches of the four major civil rights organizations were volunteers from the Medical Committee for Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Organization, and Christian and Jewish clergy and divinity students recruited by the National Council of Churches, who provided traditional religious support while also engaging in protests, recruiting voter applicants, and going with them to register.
National outrage after the murder of the black Mississippian James Chaney, and two Jewish New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in June of 1964, helped lead to passage of the Civil Rights Act. I can still remember the day I learned that their bodies had been found. I wept for the young men I didn’t know, for all the Freedom Riders, and for my country, a place where such a thing could happen.
The American legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation is a wound so deep it may never fully heal. The constant efforts to de-legitimize President Barack Obama underlines this country’s entrenched racism. Current events like the failure to indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed black citizens have outraged many. As a white person, I can barely imagine the daily indignities, humiliations, and dangers black Americans routinely faced 50 years ago and often face today, even though, as a woman and a Jew I have personally experienced some discrimination.
The black-Jewish relationship is complex, with many changes over time, but the historical record is clear. One of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 was Henry Moskowitz. According to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Jewish philanthropy was responsible in whole or in part for the founding of more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools and twenty black colleges (including Howard, Dillard and Fisk universities).
But white and specifically Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement went far beyond institution-building fund-raising. Arnie Aronson was an important organizer of the 1963 March on Washington where Rabbi Uri Miller recited the opening prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke before Dr. King’s historic “I have a dream” speech. The civil rights confrontations in St. Augustine, Florida, came to a head in the spring of 1964, when three wives of Episcopal bishops joined northern college students to take part in civil rights activities, during which Dr. King was arrested. From jail, he wrote to his friend, Rabbi Israel Dresner in New Jersey, urging him to recruit rabbis to come to St. Augustine, resulting in a huge mass arrest of the rabbis who responded.
In the new film, Dr. King makes a dramatic appeal to people of all races and religions to come and join him in Selma… This is a deeply moving and dramatically effective scene. But I looked in vain for the embrace of a man with a yarmulke, a scene that would reflect the historical moment when Dr. King marched with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian and philosopher widely respected beyond the Jewish community. He may be present in the grainy documentary footage at the end of the film, but he is not visible in the body of the film, nor are any other Jews openly recognized.