Southern Hospitality Was Not Extended Say R.I. Rabbis Who Marched in Alabama
The article describes Rabbi William G. Braude, Rabbi Saul Leeman, and Rabbi Nathan Rosen's visit to Montgomery, Alabama in the spring of 1965.
We were more truly rabbis during that period than during most of our rabbinical activities around here. Whether among Jews or Christians, we felt we functioned effectively," "While no one expected immediate results, there were immediate results: Negroes worshipped with whites that Sunday, the very weekend of the demonstration." "I stepped out of line onto the sidewalk for a few minutes. One of the colored people marching said, 'Look at him! There's a white man with a smile on his face.' The other white faces on the sidewalk were scowling." These are the comments of three Providence-area rabbis who went to Montgomery, Alabama.
Rabbi William C. Braude of Temple Beth El, Rabbi Saul Leeman of the Cranston Jewish Center, and Rabbi Nathan N. Rosen, Director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at Brown University, joined the civil rights marchers in a demonstration that vividly recalls, by its positive non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi's march to make salt.
Their reasons for going varied, but in essence were the same. Rabbi Rosen's first pulpit was in Savannah, Ga., where for three years he "witnessed the indignities and injustices visited on the Negro population. They were considered sub-human." As a member of the Governor's Board for Advancement of Negro Culture (the Georgia branch of a national society), he visited Negro schools and saw their "physical lacks. They were broken-down buildings, in miserable slums. On one occasion the president of a Negro college visited me in my temple and had to walk in the back way. This was standard procedure, but it struck me as a fantastic thing. I caught the flavor of this bigotry and intolerance. When this small opportunity came I felt I had to go."
"I went because it was difficult not to go when one saw pictures of what occurred at Selma; and heard Dr. Martin Luther King calling his brother clergy to stand by him in the light," said Rabbi Leeman. "We have to be very thankful a man like Dr. King heads this. It could have been Malcolm X or some other hothead."
"When I was a little boy and came to the United States, for the first time I saw policemen who not only didn't harm me but would help me. Little Jewish boys in Russia were afraid of policemen, as little Negro boys are in the South. I wanted to change a situation where boys in America are afraid of policemen, to do what little I could. Also I felt a sense of sympathy with these people who so needed the sympathy of others," said Rabbi Braude.
Rabbis Leeman and Braude were together during the whole visit. They were in and about Montgomery on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and joined the march for about 13 miles. They distributed leaflets to Negroes urging them to attend a rally, march to the capitol, and register as voters. Like many other sympathizers from the North, they slept in a Negro home.
Rabbi Rosen had planned to leave the National Conference of Hillel Directors, which was meeting in New York, on Tuesday, but the airline had mislaid his reservation so he returned to Providence. One of the students going on a flight chartered by the Rhode Island State Council of Churches gave up his seat to the rabbi, who left on Wednesday with a group of 25 Rhode Islanders. At Logan Airport they were given canteens which they filled with water.
"I thought it strange," said the Brown University chaplain. "We were going to be in the United States, we weren't going to a desert. But I understood why when we arrived in Alabama. There were the Montgomery police, with their thick necks, clubs in their hands, holding metal helmets, scowls on their faces…Southern hospitality was not extended to us.”
Rabbi Leeman mentioned other precautions: “We were told to stick to colored cabs only. We were given phone numbers, and names of people to contact if we needed bail or got into trouble. We felt a certain security in the Negro community. Any of us would have hitched a ride with a Negro driving by, but we didn’t dare to with whites.
“The march itself was very important symbolically. Let’s not minimize the importance of symbols. Here was the governor of a state saying segregation now and forever, here were white citizens who wouldn’t permit integration, but the Federal government insisted and the segregationists had to swallow it. Only the armed might of the government separated the hostile camp of whites and Negroes…no, the Negroes’ were not a hostile camp…to prevent the bloodshed and violence. The Negroes were brainwashed into love.”
Rabbi Rosen, eager to telephone news of his arrival to his wife, watched the cross wires from the main telephone drag to find a house in the Negro section with a telephone. “I was impressed by the warmth of the Negroes,” he commented. “They greeted us with heart-warming smiles and expressions of appreciation. This was the general attitude of all Negroes, that the people coming down to take part in the march brought their situation to light, so people would know the injustices they are subject to.”
The actual physical discomfort of such a gathering, an unarmed camp ringed with armed and hostile men, was not mentioned by any of the rabbis, except in a matter-of-fact comment by Rabbi Rosen. They arrived at the St. Jude “complex of buildings, a mudhole surrounded by shacks, in the Negro section, at 5 in the morning. From 5 A.M. to 11 A.M., we were milling around this area, until the march got under way. There was no place to sit down.”
Rabbi Braude said it was a “tremendous experience. I felt I was a soldier again. I walked down Dexter Avenue and the glowering looks from whites on either side made it a canyon of hate.”
The only white people who welcomed them with open arms, “knowing what we were,” said Beth El’s spiritual leader, were a Jew and his wife who gave them food. They had a great deal of trouble getting them to accept any money for the food. The couple said that if there had been marches 30 to 40 years ago, perhaps the Nazis would not have come to power.
The Providence rabbis mentioned the effectiveness of the march in focusing the country’s attention on injustice to some of her citizens. “The march challenges Wallace and the powers that be with the reality that the Negroes there are not alone,” said Rabbi Rosen. Rabbi Leeman felt that once the barrier of segregation is broken, as it was in Negro-white worship that Sunday, the precedent is set. “It’s no longer a lily-white preserve,” he remarked. He discussed also the fact that while demonstrators were ostensibly seeking the right to vote, there are economic and social problems involved, too. “The hungry don’t think in terms of power structure, but of getting food. Educational and job opportunities enter into solving this as well as the right to vote.”
Last night at Hillel House, some of the clergymen and students who participated in the Alabama demonstration held a panel discussion and evaluation of the march.
(Many Rhode Island rabbis who were unable to go to Alabama joined a civil rights demonstration here in Providence. Rabbi Joseph M. Rothberger of Congregation Ohawe Sholam represented Rhode Island Rabbinical Association on the March 25 march from City Hall to the Statehouse, and gave the invocation.)