After the brutal assault on black marchers in Selma, Alabama on 7 March 1965, the USA could no longer deny it had a race problem. In the following 2 weeks a call went out nationwide for a massive march from Selma to Montgomery. On 20 March Heschel flew to Atlanta, and then on to Montgomery the next morning to join the marchers from Selma.
As MLK was organising the front of the march, and who would join him there, Heschel insisted that he should be in the front line. Rather than being an ego issue (not that he was completely above such a thing) this is generally thought to be because of his awareness of the media impact of the white bearded, yarmulke wearing rabbi, like the quintessence of the Hebrew prophet, marching in solidarity with King.
After the march, when he was back in New York, Heschel wrote, famously,
having walked with Hasidic rabbis on various occasions, I felt a sense of the Holy in what I was doing…For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.
I think the attitude displayed here is what attracts me to Heschel. He was an academic, he was a conservative Jew, he was committed to the study of the Bible, and in one sense he was the last person you would imagine being involved in this form of protest. But it is also true that he couldn’t read the prophets without also responding to the ethical dimension of their call. His formal, academic study of the bible led him to the streets.
For too many of us here in Northern Ireland we isolate our study of the Scriptures from our activity in the world. All too rarely do we integrate them so we are left with a private, pietistic form of faith that is toothless in the public arena.
And there’s another thing here for me. Heschel is deeply committed to the work of prayer, as most of us Christians would profess to be. But too often our prayer is toothless as well. Church leaders constantly complain about the ‘lack of prayer’ in their churches. And having been to my share of prayer meetings I am no longer surprised by prayer or worship that lacks power.
I wonder has Heschel hit on it here. Too often our prayer and our worship lack legs.
We isolate prayer from the work of the streets. Like a lake dammed at each end there is no inlet or outlet for our activity. We become consumed by what we do on our knees among ourselves. For Heschel though, the Selma March represented the coming together of personal piety and social action.
Private prayer and worship both feed and were fed by his walking.
[for a fuller reflection by Susannah Heschel on her father and the Selma-Montgomery March see here.]