Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include attribution that was inadvertently omitted.
“Last Sunday I went for a walk … I did not walk alone.”
These words begin the powerful retelling of the story of Rabbi Maurice Davis offered by the Indiana Historical Bureau.
The author, Jill Weiss Simins, continues, albeit adapted slightly from the original:
With these simple words, Rabbi Maurice Davis described his 1965 trip to Selma, Alabama. Rabbi Davis’ “walk” was a protest led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against institutional racism, voter suppression, and violence against African Americans. When Dr. King asked civil rights leaders, faith leaders, and citizens from around the country to join him in Alabama, Rabbi Davis had no question that it was his duty to join the demonstration. His civil rights bonafides firmly established, Rabbi Davis marched in Selma because “it was right.”
We who are indebted to our history should be proud of the collaborative nature of the civil rights struggle. We should hold that up as an inspiration to all generations, for it is emblematic of our mandate for what the Jewish community calls Tikkun Olam, the reparation of the world. But we should not overlook that Dr. King was also incredibly supportive of issues that didn’t impact the community he directly served. He also fought to ease discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union and to assure the safety and security of the State of Israel. He spoke out against anti-Semitism in the U.S., especially when that virus erupted among the Black community. Though his most public pronouncements almost wholly focused, as they should have, on the fight for Black Americans to secure full civil rights in this country, it was a two-way street between King and the Jewish community. He did what he could for the Jewish people within the limits of his role as an advocate for his own people, and within the limits of his own political and moral power. He understood that a people who fought for their rights were only honorable if their concern extended to the rights of all people.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s reciprocation shows his full humanity and, hopefully, inspires us. Whatever our religious and racial identity or social class, we must agree that the freedom to live in a just society, without hurting or violating others, compels us to stand together, as it did our parents and our grandparents to stand together behind Martin Luther King. As people whose stories include struggles against oppressive forces, we must commit to continue working on issues that advance racial and economic equity, even as we realize that many of the oppressive forces of the past are still active today. The more we walk together in partnership, the more we can actually break through and have a lasting and positive impact on our communities. Recognizing that there are challenges to overcome should not prevent us from partnering with others, for those breaches should not stifle the important work that our communities have done – and can do – together.
Today we are faced with a renewed invitation to come together and march. This time, though, we need not drive westward to Selma. There are many ways to march (some methods without leaving our homes!) in the struggle against institutional racism, voter suppression, and violence against Black Americans. Dr. King’s invitation, extended in 1965, has been repeated over and over again out of necessity, for the work is far from complete. We have inherited a legacy painstakingly crafted by those who have come before -- that when we see injustice, we must “go for a walk.” We have found our place, and our footing, in the well-worn footprints of the giants who have passed the mantle to us and to our generation and beyond. Until all peoples experience the same sense of security that only some now enjoy and which is denied to others, we must “go for a walk.”
The words of the Jewish prayer book are particularly evocative of the legacy of Dr. King – a legacy that we in 2021 have inherited and on which we will leave our mark.
The call for collaboration is best captured by the Jewish political scholar, ethicist, and author Michael Walzer.
“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness; that there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”
Mark Dawson, Rabbi Brad Levenberg, and Victoria Raggs are co-chairs of the Atlanta Black/Jewish Coalition, an American Jewish Committee initiative.