My parents’ words were pretty explicit back in 1963 “….don’t go to any demonstrations and don’t sign petitions…stick to your PhD studies!”
But the further I got from Queens, NY, the sooner those words were forgotten. In fact, I got sucked in almost immediately.
On August 28, 1963, as we were still moving into our (segregated) Langley Park, MD apartment, I quietly (not even letting my housemate know) went to the March on Washington. The hundreds of thousands of people with their signs, speakers, singers, buses overwhelmed me.
The next week in an effort of collegiality I turned to one of the few Black classmates in my U of MD graduate school class and asked if he wanted to go out for a beer. We tried but were shocked when, in College Park, we were refused service! At the time there were sit-ins along Route One. The only nearby Maryland motel where, for instance, a Black family could stay was a rickety group of shacks aptly called “Uncle Tom’s Cabins”. I joined CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and got involved.
In 1963 and 1964 Maryland was mostly segregated – including Montgomery and Prince Georges’ County. The schools, housing, motels were segregated. It was 1964 when our CORE chapter was joined by NAACP and CORE chapters from Baltimore at the MD General Assembly and we vowed to sit in until a public accommodation bill was passed. (It eventually was!)
I remember the sit-ins, arrests and brutality of the Prince George’s County police and the fact that much of the segregated apartment housing appeared to be owned by Jews. Sadly the Levittown development built in Bowie, MD called Bel Air was openly for “whites only” and we sat in in the “model home” there.
In the summer of 1964 our CORE chapter worked with the local SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) chapter in Cedar Heights, MD – a town within distant sight of the Capitol with unpaved streets, mediocre sewage and a barb wire topped fence separating it from the closest shopping center. We started a summer “Freedom School”, a community clean up, a voter registration drive and had our first contact with Reverend Martin Luther King and the SCLC.
It came to King’s attention through newspaper articles in the Washington Star and Baltimore Sun that the barbed wire-topped fence which separated Cedar Heights, MD from a shopping center also separated it from the adjoining mostly white community of Seat Pleasant. The SCLC wanted to come in led by King and tear down the fence. The proximity to DC would grab the attention of the media. Our position was that the community needed to make that decision – not us or the SCLC.
Although it was subtle in the newly released film, Selma, many of us in the civil rights movement had some hostility toward Martin Luther King. For sure, he rose to power as a 26 year old son and grandson of activist ministers of the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. And the ministers of Montgomery selected him to champion the bus boycott started by Rosa Parks and the NAACP in 1955. He adopted the passive resistance tactics started by James Farmer, head of CORE and successfully used earlier by Gandhi in India against the British.
After a positive Supreme Court ruling in 1956, King boarded a bus (along with a white minister) and he became the symbol and leader of the Civil Rights Movement, earning the Nobel Peace prize.
His SCLC, started in 1957, trained thousands on how to defy, through peaceful means, laws and customs they considered evil.
Meanwhile, the NAACP, the Urban League, CORE and the emerging Malcolm X Black Nationalism were all left in SCLC’s wake. Some felt King’s approach was weak and cowardly. Others had a disdain for his celebrity status and still others like SNCC favored “consensus politics” rather than the top-down leadership of the SCLC.
Back to Cedar Heights. The community voted down the King/SCLC approach of bringing in protestors from outside the community to physically topple the fence. They feared that the action would leave their community facing racist neighbors and the scary reality of what that might bring after SCLC and we left. We respected their decision while the SCLC was disappointed. Keep in mind that when we demonstrated back then, there was an active KKK, Nazi Party and White Citizen Council groups and they often showed up at our demonstrations to taunt us.
As an afterthought, I am not so sure the decision was altogether wise. Cedar Heights is still a backwater community, alone and largely forgotten. The neighboring white community is now Black. Poverty and racism still persists in Prince Georges County, MD so our efforts didn’t seem to achieve much of anything. Perhaps the presence of King and the SCLC might have put Cedar Heights on the map and made a difference.
In February, 1965 Selma was about to implode. I was chairperson of the local CORE chapter and had recently gotten a social work job in Montgomery County, MD. I thought there was a chance I could get a few days off and participate in the third attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. I called national CORE and they told me my best shot was to get a religious organization to back me. I first approached National Hillel and then the Religious Action Center (RAC). Neither was interested in sponsoring me and the RAC was working mostly legislatively. During my search I learned about Rabbis who were outspoken and one, it was rumored, was planning to attend the March. That was the “maverick” conservative rabbi named Abraham Joshua Heschel. Another activist was Rabbi Eugene Lipman who participated in the 1961 CORE Freedom Rides and was the Rabbi at Temple Sinai in Washington, DC. A third was Rabbi Joseph Lelyveld who was beaten senseless in Hattiesburg, Mississippi as part of the 1964 Freedom Summer.
As there was not much of a chance getting Jewish sponsorship, I heard that the national Unitarian Universalist Church was looking for a representative. I called and told them I had been going to the Silver Spring UU church and they agreed to send me! I packed, wrote a note to my parents and was scheduled to leave the next morning. However, I got a call from my sponsors that morning informing me that a Boston UU minister named James Reeb came forward and volunteered and they apologized but preferred his representation. I understood and dropped my efforts to get to Selma. Reeb went and was murdered by pipe-wielding white racists (as depicted in the film).
I participated in a demonstration in front of the White House in support of the Selma march instead. I and with several others were arrested for “incommoding the sidewalk”. We also tried to help organize Prince Georges’ County Black communities into stronger political force. A few months later, I was fired from my social work job for protesting the appointments of 2 overt racists to the Human Relations’ Commission (several churches organized a protest of my firing!).
Curiously, I was hired by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in 1966 through 1971 working on Civil Rights, Migrant Worker Education, Welfare and Mental health issues and helped start FEDS (Federal Employees for a Democratic Society) which engaged in publicly protesting racism injustice and the war in Vietnam.
I helped form ACCESS (Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in the Suburbs) that tried to end Washington area housing segregation. Then I turned my focus on racism within the local Jewish community by helping to form Jews for Urban Justice (JUJ) which evolved into Fabrangen, an independent chavurah in 1971, where my wife and I still belong.
Some questions and thoughts:
1. See Selma. It is an incredibly inspirational work of art and drama.
2. My memories of many fellow students, white and Black, back in the ‘60’s was that most didn’t want to get involved. If your parents grew up in the 60’s, ask them how they dealt with racism and injustice during that time.
3. What is each of us doing today to address these same issues.
4. How is diversity integrated personally in our social, professional and political lives.
5. If you are involved in a church, mosque or synagogue, is there a social action/justice committee? Does it tackle important local and political issues.
6. Selma demonstrated how important it is to be involved in local politics. How have you learned that lesson today. For example, how deeply do you research candidates before a local election; do you attend hearings; do you lend your voice in support or opposition to issues; and how active are you in working to replace ineffective and corupt elected officials.