A Moment Photo Symposium in Honor of the Struggle for Racial Equality
Interviews by Nadine Epstein, Sala Levin and Steven V. Roberts
The spate of police shootings of young black men and the recent racially motivated mass killing of worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina reveal the degree to which racial tensions continue to flare in America today. That makes this a fitting time to look back at the pivotal events of the American civil rights movement that are rapidly vanishing from collective memory with the passage of time. As part of Moment’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we have selected five photographs that help illustrate the story of that critical era in American history. Photographs have become one of the most powerful ways in which we remember this era, and they convey the intimacy of the moment to generations who were not there. The majority of the people portrayed in these images have passed on, including, of course, the man who is in four of the five, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. But we have asked those who are still with us—or those with a special connection to the people in the photos—to share their stories. Here, we hear from Janice Rothschild Blumberg, Julian Bond, Shelley Broderick, Barney Frank, Susannah Heschel, John Lewis, Eleanor Holmes Norton and others. This Moment photo symposium is based on “A Great Civil Rights Partnership: A Celebration in Honor of the Struggle for Racial Equality,” a conversation held on May 3 in partnership with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute at the Newseum in Washington, DC, an event moderated by journalist Steven V. Roberts.
June 22, 1963
This photograph was taken by White House photographer Abbie Rowe outside the White House after a series of meetings called by President John F. Kennedy to discuss solutions to the country’s racial tensions. The day before it was taken, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders had announced that they were organizing a mass March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to take place August 28. President Kennedy is absent from the photo because he left earlier that day for a European diplomatic trip. Among those pictured, from left to right in the first row, are national director of the Anti-Defamation League Benjamin Epstein, who would later march with King from Montgomery to Selma; King; Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; executive secretary of the NAACP Roy Wilkins; Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson; president of United Auto Workers Walter P. Reuther; president of the National Urban League Whitney M. Young, Jr.; Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz; and Randolph, president of the Negro American Labor Council. Others in the picture are director of Congress of Racial Equality James Farmer; civil liberties attorney Joseph L. Rauh, Jr.; president of the Southern Regional Council James McBride Dabbs; New York Congressman James H. Scheuer; president of the National Council of Negro Women Dorothy Height; and National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council program director Arnold Aronson, who helped lobby for both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. was the nation’s leading civil rights lawyer at the time. He was the son of German-Jewish immigrants, and he died in 1992. Joe was an amazing guy. He went to Harvard, where he played basketball. He was a very tall guy. There was a black athlete on the team, and when they were playing Columbia, they went to some hotel where they were supposed to be put up, and they wouldn’t put up the black member of the team. Joe led the whole team right out. He started very young as an activist. He just cared. It was in him always.
Shelley Broderick is dean of the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia, where she is also the Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., Chair of Social Justice. She is a leading civil liberties lawyer.
My father, James Scheuer, was deeply committed to the civil rights movement and believed everyone should have the opportunity to rise to his or her highest level of accomplishment. He worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. to advance voting rights and went to see him in the Selma jail in February 1965 after his arrest for leading voting-rights demonstrations. From his longtime support of Head Start to his advocacy for integrated housing and his work on behalf of voting rights, my father never lost his passion for fair and equal treatment of black Americans.
Elizabeth Scheuer is an attorney and decorative-arts historian who teaches at SUNY Purchase College in New York. She is the daughter of the late New York Congressman James H. Scheuer.
January 23, 1965
This photograph was taken at an Atlanta banquet honoring King, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1964. It depicts King with his wife Coretta Scott King, the late Rabbi Jacob Rothschild and his wife Janice Rothschild, now Janice Rothschild Blumberg. Rothschild was spiritual leader of Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, which was bombed by white supremacists in 1958. As King’s friend and civil rights movement collaborator, he helped organize the event, which was Atlanta’s first integrated banquet.
Janice Rothschild Blumberg
My son Bill took this picture with his Brownie camera at the dinner. It’s the only picture that we have of the four of us together. Most of the people in Atlanta were not in favor of this celebration. When the rabbi and the delegation went to Mayor Ivan Allen to say, “We think the city of Atlanta should honor its first Nobel laureate,” Allen said, “I agree with you completely.” He went to the power structure, the business establishment, and came back to the committee and said, “I can’t get them to go along with this, and you know that there’s very little chance that it will be successful, but I’ll be behind you all the way because I think you’re right. We should do it.”
There were a lot of ups and downs making it happen. A lot of secrecy had to be maintained so that the news didn’t get out until the committee was ready for it to go out. At the last minute, tickets became very scarce. The thing that I remember most about the dinner itself was that it was oversold. It was held at the largest facility they had at the time, the Dinkler Plaza Hotel. That entire wall was like bleachers, filled with cameramen, journalists, photojournalists and their cameras, three deep. People were so proud of themselves for being there. They tried to touch us so that we would know that they were there. It was one of the most exciting times of my life.
“People were so proud of themselves for being there. They tried to touch us so that we would know that they were there.”
I have lots of memories of the Kings. I have one that brings tears to my eyes. It’s the other side of the coin, and I think that people should understand how bad things were. I guess it was around 1960-61. We had invited them to dinner with a few of our friends, just a simple dinner at our home. They were very, very late getting there. Dr. King insisted on explaining the whole thing. He said, “The street is dark, and we are not familiar with this part of town, and we couldn’t read the number, so we weren’t sure. Finally,” he said, “we had to go drive up into somebody’s driveway to ask them which house was yours, but I want you to know we would not embarrass you with your neighbors.” He said, “I let Coretta go up to the door, so they wouldn’t see me, and they wouldn’t recognize her. They’d think we had just come to serve the party.” That was the way it was in Buckhead [an affluent Atlanta neighborhood] in those days. I think people should remember. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Janice Rothschild Blumberg is an author and former president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society. A native of Atlanta, she experienced history firsthand as the wife of Jacob M. Rothschild, rabbi of Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, which was bombed by white supremacists in 1958.
March 7, 1965
In this photo, John Lewis (in the light coat), Hosea Williams (to Lewis’s right), Robert Mants (behind Lewis, wearing a scarf) and unidentified marchers face a line of state troopers in Selma, Alabama, the city King had chosen to stage his peaceful protest against onerous voting restrictions. Their plan was to march to the state capitol in Montgomery in order to draw attention to voting rights prejudice in the South. The police were heavily armed. Lewis, King and the other marchers were unarmed. This photograph, taken by Alabama photojournalist James “Spider” Martin and titled “Two Minute Warning,” was taken just moments before police assaulted the marchers—an event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Lewis was badly injured, as were other marchers.
On March 7, 1965, we decided to march from Selma to Montgomery, 600 of us. We crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We got to the top of the bridge and we saw a sea of blue down below of Alabama state troopers. We were told that the march would not be allowed, that we must return to our homes or to our church. We were beaten, trampled on by horses, teargassed.
Because of what happened on Bloody Sunday, the Congress acted. The President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, acted, introducing the Voting Rights Act, which Congress passed. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed it into law. We made progress. I believe today, if it hadn’t been for the Voting Rights Act, there wouldn’t have been a Jimmy Carter as president or Bill Clinton. There would be no Barack Obama as president.
John Lewis has served as a Congressional representative from Georgia since 1987. He was badly injured on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma in 1965. Today he is the only living member of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement.
I tend to look at this photo and see the people who are no longer with us. John is the only person now living in that photograph. On one side of him is Hosea Williams. On the other side is Robert Mants. Both of them are gone now. I’m sorry, but that’s what I see when I look at the picture, people who aren’t here anymore.
Julian Bond was one of eight Morehouse College students who studied with Martin Luther King, Jr. A founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a longtime member of the Georgia House of Representatives and Georgia Senate, Bond served 11 terms as chair of the national board of the NAACP.
“We got to the top of the bridge and we saw a sea of blue down below of Alabama state troopers… We were beaten, trampled on by horses, teargassed.” —John Lewis
We had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I was surprised at how retrograde they still were in Alabama. There was an expectation that they had learned a little. It was a terrible thing, but many of us thought that they had shown such brutality and lack of humanity that the federal government had to intervene. Any argument that the government shouldn’t was one of the victims of that massacre.
Barney Frank was a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts from 1981 to 2013, who played a key role in passing legislation for civil rights and financial reform. In 1964, Frank, then a student at Harvard College, traveled to Mississippi as a volunteer for Freedom Summer.
March 21, 1965
In this photograph, taken just moments after the marchers left Brown’s Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma on their way to Montgomery, King walks arm in arm with, from left to right, John Lewis, an unidentified nun, civil rights activist and minister Ralph Abernathy, academic and diplomat Ralph Bunche, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and civil rights activist and minister Fred Shuttlesworth. Visible in the second row between King and Bunche is Rabbi Maurice Davis, who founded the Kentucky Committee on Desegregation in 1952. Heschel famously said of the march, “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.” According to Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, this photo was most likely snapped by a police photographer.
This is an iconic photograph, and that moment in Selma has become a moment of tremendous inspiration for a lot of Jews. I have to tell you that when my father first went to Selma, it was a very frightening time. We had a television at home, a little black and white television. As I was growing up, of course we watched the news. There were images of black demonstrators who were peaceful, who were being treated horribly, with vicious dogs and water hoses. The images were terrifying.
My father’s relationship with Dr. King was something that felt a little miraculous. My father went to Chicago to give a speech at a conference on religion and race that had been organized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. That’s where he met Dr. King for the first time. Something happened in that moment. They suddenly, instantly, became very close, in a very deep way.
It was Friday afternoon shortly before Shabbat. My mother and I were at home, and we received a telegram asking my father to come to the march. He made flight reservations and packed his suitcase before Shabbat. It was a nervous time for us. When Shabbat was over, my father made havdalah, and we went downstairs. I remember that moment vividly, because I was worried that he might never come back, that he was going to a very dangerous place.
The picture that everybody looks at today with great pride was a moment of tension and fear, but you don’t see it on their faces. My father felt that it was a holy moment. That’s how he wrote about it in his diaries, that he felt holiness in the march, that it reminded him of walking with Hasidic rebbes in Europe, which is a religious act.
Susannah Heschel is professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth and an author and editor of many books, including Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism. She is the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Eleanor Holmes Norton
The role of the Jewish community began very early in the civil rights movement. It is very important to know that of all the white people in the United States, from the beginning of the formation of the NAACP, the Jewish community has played a prominent role. [The first president of the NAACP was Jewish, as were some of its cofounders.] In this country, where people came as immigrants, they tended to become homogenized and forget that they had their own struggles. And what I think African Americans most appreciate about the Jewish community is that it never forgot its age-old struggles or failed to apply those to our own struggle.
Eleanor Holmes Norton is in her 13th term as the delegate to the U.S. Congress representing the District of Columbia and is a former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A longtime civil rights leader, she went to Mississippi in 1963 to prepare for Freedom Summer.
Rabbi Michael Davis
Being a part of that march from Selma to Montgomery was the first time that I saw my father—Rabbi Maurice Davis—involved in civil rights matters. He was in it long before that. When we lived in Kentucky he was involved with diversity and segregation issues, and we encountered the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. After the march, our family was threatened by local people because of his involvement. Civil rights in all forms was a lifelong passion for my father.
February 23, 1966
This photograph of Julian Bond and Martin Luther King, Jr. was taken less than a year after Bloody Sunday, and a dramatic change had occurred in the United States: the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the photo, the two men cast their ballots for Bond, who was then 25 and a candidate for the Georgia House of Representatives; Bond won the seat. The moment was captured by an Associated Press photographer.
The courts had created new seats in Georgia, and black people were elected to the State Legislature. I ran for one of those seats. Shortly after this picture was taken, a colleague of mine in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee named Samuel Young, who had lost one of his kidneys in the Navy, tried to go to the bathroom at a white gas station. The owner shot him in the back and killed him.
Some sort of dormant anti-war feeling rose up in the SNCC, and we issued a statement, which at the time sounded radical and extreme, but today would sound like nothing at all. It irritated my colleagues-to-be in the legislature, and they threw me out and declared my seat vacant. I ran for the vacancy, and I won the vacancy, and they declared it vacant again. I ran for the vacancy, and I won the vacancy, and they declared it vacant a second time. I ran a third time, and they considered it vacant. And I appealed to the federal courts, and the judge appointed by President Carter voted against me, which I’ll never forget. Two judges voted against me, and one voted for me, and so I appealed to the Supreme Court.
I went to the Supreme Court to hear the argument about my seat in the Legislature. The Attorney General of Georgia argued that I should be thrown out of the Legislature. Justice Byron White asked a question, “Is this all you have? And you’ve come all this way? This is all you have?” I punched my lawyer’s partner on the arm, and I said, “We’re winning, aren’t we?” He said, “Yes, you are.” And we were, and we did.