In honor of this week’s 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the following successful march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, we share this highlight from our archives. In this booklet, Rabbi Joseph Weinberg z’l reflects on his dramatic experiences during the civil rights demonstrations in Selma – including how he celebrated Purim in jail with several other clergy after their arrest.
On March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights marchers in Alabama attempted to march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery. Only six blocks into the journey, the marchers were brutally attacked by law enforcement officials at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The event came to be called “Bloody Sunday.”
Soon after, Martin Luther King, Jr. put out a call to clergy of every faith to join a court-protected march a few weeks later. Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, then serving a San Francisco congregation, traveled to Selma, Alabama, with a delegation of northern California rabbis.
The rabbis arrived a week before the march and, upon arrival, they joined a larger group of clergy in a peaceful picket in a white neighborhood close to the home of Mayor Joe Smitherman. The goal was to directly present the civil rights struggle to the town’s white residents. The 39 clergy were immediately arrested, 21 of which spent the night in the local jail.
It was the eve of Purim, and so the rabbis began to plan a service, inviting the Christian ministers to join them. As Rabbi Weinberg recounts:
“I followed Rabbi Saul Berman, reading some selections of the story of Esther in English, and concluded with a closing prayer, the theme of which was that Haman was not a man who lived long ago, but rather an idea that finds its embodiment in every age against which men must struggle and against which we were presently engaged in bearing witness.”
Rabbi Weinberg’s recounting of the following days describe further demonstrations and clashes with the police, futile attempts to speak with the mayor, and community meetings. On March 21, 1965, Rabbi Weinberg joined Reverend King and thousands of others in Selma to start the historic march to Montgomery. Weinberg remembers:
And so I marched that warm Sunday afternoon down a highway in Alabama, arm in arm with Black, Chinese, Christian, Jew, and Buddhist. All of us were marching to testify that in our generation we, too, would participate in the redemption of our brethren from the land of Egypt.
A few years later, Rabbi Joseph Weinberg moved to Washington, D.C., where he served Washington Hebrew Congregation from 1969 to 1999. His children reprinted his Selma recollections in this special booklet for Father’s Day 1992. We are grateful to his widow, Marcia Weinberg, for contributing it to our archives earlier this year.