Local rabbi participated in Selma march

 
Posted2/19/2015 1:00 AM

With all the interest in the current movie about the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, I've been thinking about what was going on in Arlington Heights during the 1960s. There was some ferment.

You could run into neighbors leafleting for Cesar Chavez' lettuce boycott in front of the National Tea store on Northwest Highway. A human relations group was working to open the town up to minorities. St. James Catholic Church ran a summer school for the children of migrant workers.

 

Joan Grisell of First Presbyterian Church was into ecumenism and engineered the organization of the AHEAD (Arlington Heights Ecumenical Action and Discussion) Committee to bring together people of different faiths to increase their understanding of one another's views.

But I can think of only one local participant in the actual Selma march, only one person who risked his life.

Rabbi Hillel Gamoran of Beth Tikvah Congregation was a member of the AHEAD committee. That's where I first knew him -- gentle, quiet, reflective. I would not have necessarily expected him to be our representative at the scariest nexus in the country.

Yet it was Rabbi Gamoran who was in Selma when a Unitarian minister from Boston was attacked by segregationists with a club and fatally injured.

It was Rabbi Gamoran who stood on the same spot where two days earlier, as he said later, "our brothers had been beaten with clubs, trampled by horses and gassed."

In a letter to Fence Post in the Herald, Rabbi Gamoran wrote that there is no doubt that the influx of hundreds of clergymen from all over America into Selma on the Tuesday he was there prevented a repetition of the brutal beatings of the Sunday before.

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"The fat state troopers of Alabama … did not dare to attack us on Tuesday because Mrs. Paul Douglas and Bishop John Wesley Lord and a monsignor and a rabbi were at the head of the line along with Martin Luther King."

The marchers walked four abreast with two white clergy on the outside of each row and two local black people on the inside. The Alabama state troopers didn't make a move. Why didn't they make a move? Because Rabbi Gamoran said there were a thousand white men they would have to club along with the black people.

Today's moviegoers cringe at the cruelty they see on the screen, but they console themselves, knowing that the sacrifices of the people who marched from Selma were instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

After Dr. King's assassination in 1968, Rabbi Gamoran sent to the Herald a tribute to the preacher he had followed in Selma, saying Dr. King was, in his opinion, "the greatest American of our day." He also wrote of Dr. King's commitment to nonviolence. "When a white woman slapped him in a shop and called him (an offensive name), Dr. King said nothing. An American Nazi slugged him in the jaw at a rally in Birmingham. Dr. King did not return the blow."

Rabbi Gamoran's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. ended on a note of hope. Admitting that Dr. King's death was incredibly sad, Rabbi Gamoran urged readers to take hope. "We can unite this land. A nation capable of splitting the atom and soaring to the heavens can live together in unity."

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