Why My Grandfather – and My Dad – Marched in Selma

Rabbi Leon Jick heeded Martin Luther King Jr.'s call to action and set an example for future generations.

Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Selma, Alabama, alongside Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other civil rights activists.
AP

My late grandfather, Leon Jick, a Reform rabbi and a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, was among the cohort of clergy who took an active role in the civil rights activism alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On June 18, 1964, my grandfather and several other rabbis were arrested in Saint Augustine, Florida for their participation in integrated prayer at a local restaurant. The group then penned a letter from jail titled "Why We Went."

Later, when Dr. King sounded the call for clergy to participate in the march in Selma, my grandfather not only made immediate travel arrangements, but also invited my 15-year-old father to join him. In doing so, my grandfather demonstrated that his own involvement was not enough: He wanted to set a dugma ishit, a personal example, to ensure that the allegiance he felt to the civil rights movement would be passed as a value to future generations.

After seeing the movie "Selma" last week, I asked my dad about the experience marching. I had seen his photographs from the march, but after seeing the movie, the images came to life. I finally understood that my grandfather’s choice to bring my father to Selma was not obvious; it was so dangerous. It was a remarkable parenting choice. My dad remembers the march not only for its political and communal power, but also as a significant experience of bonding with his own father. With this in mind, I posed new questions about rabbinic participation in the civil rights movement. What did my grandfather want to teach my father in that moment? Why was it worth the risk?

I wish I could ask him. Instead, I turn to the words he and his colleagues wrote from their Saint Augustine jail cell: "We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away. We could not say no to Martin Luther King.”

This line startles me. How do we spur Jewish involvement in civil rights without an inspiring leader whom we cannot refuse? Is this why my grandfather made the dangerous choice to invite my father to Selma—because he worried that without a leader like Martin Luther King asking us to come, we wouldn’t recognize the importance of marching?

On Martin Luther King Day, I wonder about the dual purpose of commemoration. We honor our heroes and mark monumental events not only to remember them, but also in the hopes that communal memory will provoke action. Highlighting this duality is especially poignant for us Jewish Americans who have learned that our involvement in the civil rights movement should be honored. The famous photo of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King symbolizes how we remember the Jewish community's actions at the time – how Jews stood side by side with the leaders of the civil rights movement, marching on the front lines in solidarity with the African American community. We like to think of Jewish involvement in the movement as a shining example of Jewish values aligning with the right side of history. A recent article in The Forward even took the film "Selma" to task for not depicting the extent of Jewish participation in the march.

But remembrance alone is not enough. Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1960s should inspire action of similar vitality today.

My call to Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere on this Martin Luther King Day is not just to honor the man who stirred so many, or to remember the events that our community took part in, but to ask ourselves how we can still keep this legacy active. How do we translate the story of my grandfather and his fellow rabbis, who "could not stay away," into motivation to not stay away today? How do we not only pass this lesson on to our children, but also tangibly demonstrate action? Because even without a leader like MLK to inspire us, our community is certainly comprised of people who lead by example, like my grandfather. Let us not make his bravery unique.

Zoe Jick is a candidate for the Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, where she focuses on Jewish Studies. Previously, Zoe was the Associate Director of the World Zionist Organization: Department for Diaspora Activities. Zoe is a Wexner Graduate Fellow for Jewish Education.