THREE GENERATIONS UNCOVER THEIR JEWISH SOUTHERN ROOTS. PART 5: SELMA
The Owen family, Ruben, his two sons Jacob and Rabbi Benjy and grandson Jeffrey pondered the sacred ground where they stood. On Thursday, March 25th, 1965, some fifty years earlier on that same marble plaza in front of the Alabama state capitol, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. concluded the historic March from Selma with these words.
“The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.”
Returning to their car, the group followed the route in reverse that Martin Luther King Jr led from Selma to Montgomery as part of the Selma Voting Rights Movement. What had taken the civil rights marchers three days, the Owens would accomplish in just over an hour. As they drove, Rabbi Owen shared with his teenage son Jeffrey of the bravery and determination of those who fought for rights that we all today, take for granted. They spoke of the allies of the black civil rights movement, including prominent Jewish leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Rev. King. Jeffrey was told of two young Jewish men, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who gave their lives along with fellow activist James Chaney while fighting for equality for all in 1964 Mississippi.
Soon the Owens traversed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, where On March 7, 1965, officers armed with clubs and tear gas attacked hundreds of peaceful civil rights demonstrators. It was here two weeks later, on March 21, 1965 that Rev. King began the long march to Montgomery. The Owens kept driving, now in Selma they passed run down, shuttered stores and dilapidated houses, the city looked worn and tired from the weight of history she carried on her shoulders. And then Jeffrey shouted, “Dad! A synagogue!”. There, a few blocks from the bridge, nestled between a lovingly maintained victorian home and an abandoned house, stood the striking Congregation Mishkan Israel.
The Owens had never heard of the congregation let alone expected to see it standing there, quite out-of-place alongside Alabama’s Highway 80.
According to the Institute of Southern Jewish Life “Jews first came to Selma in the 1830s from downriver in Mobile. These itinerant merchants were of Sephardic ancestry, who had emigrated to the West Indies and eventually to seaports like Charleston, South Carolina, Mobile, and New Orleans. Around 1840, Ashkenazi Jews from Western Europe, mainly Germany, began arriving in Selma. In 1870, the Reform Congregation Mishkan Israel was formally established, with services held at private residences.” The structure stumbled upon by the Owens was completed in 1900. As the fortunes of Selma have waned, so too has her Jewish population. As of 2013 there were seven remaining families associated with Mishkan Israel. As of late the temple is in use only a few times a year for special occasions.
The Owens pressed forward until arriving at a simple stone memorial dedicated to those who gave so much, sometimes their lives, in the civil rights struggle. As the three generations approached the white stones stacked one upon the other, they could read the inscription. When your children shall ask you in time to come saying ‘What mean these 12 stones?’ then you shall tell them how you made it over. “It was from Yehoshua!” noted Rabbi Owen, “the words on the memorial stones are those Joshua imparted to the Jewish people after we crossed the Jordan into Israel!”. The struggle for freedom in recent decades and three millennia ago began to swirl and intermingle in the minds of these modern day pilgrims.
It was a gorgeous day, only a few puffy clouds floated in the clear blue, Alabama sky as the Owens headed to the last stop of this Journey, “We drove through rural Alabama” remembered Ruben. “Nothing but wooden shacks and endless fields of cotton, plenty of time to think”.
Next: New Orleans, LA.