Jews United for Justice to honor civil rights pioneers

BY MIKE SHERWIN, STAFF WRITER

During the civil rights era, Jews played a central role, working closely with African-Americans to fight discrimination and injustice. Julius Rosenwald led Jewish philanthropists who together funded 2,000 schools for black students. The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League helped advocate civil rights for blacks. During the 1964 Freedom Summer, nearly one-half of the volunteers were Jewish. And in 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent Jewish theologian, marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.

Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, later wrote that the photograph of King and Heschel walking together, “has come to symbolize the great moment of symbiosis of the two communities, Black and Jewish.”

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It is this relationship, between the Jewish and African-American communities, that Jews United for Justice hopes to spotlight by honoring the Heschel-King connection and two St. Louisans who were active during the civil rights era.

Jews United for Justice will honor Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman, emeritus of United Hebrew Congregation and civil rights pioneer Norman Seay at 1 p.m. on Feb. 18 at the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center, at 225 S. Skinker Blvd. The building has special significance for Grollman, as it is the former home of United Hebrew, where Grollman served as rabbi from 1948 until his retirement in 1990.

Seay, a member of the Committee of Racial Equality, a St. Louis group affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality, took part in a protest of Jefferson Bank & Trust, at 2301 Market Street, which had replaced four black bank tellers with four white ones after it moved its offices out of a predominantly black neighborhood. Seay was one of 200 to 300 protesters at the bank. The next day, nine organizers, including Seay, were arrested. Seay was eventually sentenced to six months in jail, and served 90 days. Rabbi James Stone Goodman, of Congregation Neve Shalom and Central Reform Congregation, and member of Jews United for Justice, said Rabbi Grollman, who was head of the Rabbinical Association, was one of the protesters who continued to demonstrate at the bank, and later at City Hall after several of those arrested were sent to jail. The bank protests continued for several months, until March 1964, when the bank began hiring blacks once again.

“There has been such an historically important connection between Jews and African Americans in civil rights work,” Goodman said. “Part of the function of Jews United for Justice is to try to connect and continue that relationship and we took it upon ourselves not only to continue the relationship, but to tell the story, the history of it.”

Goodman said this is the third year the Heschel-King celebration has taken place, and the group schedules it each year to coincide roughly around the yahrzeit, or anniversary of passing, of Heschel (on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Tevet, which was Jan. 8) and Martin Luther King Day.

“Heschel was the one in the Jewish community who really came out so prominently and strongly in support of the civil rights movement. When Jews saw Heschel, it was a kind of authentication of the civil rights work going on,” Goodman said.

Goodman said the Jews for Justice event will recall the stories of Heschel and King, and will allow the audience to hear Seay and Grollman tell their own stories from the civil rights era.

“That was 40 years ago, which wasn’t a long time, but it’s enough that people do forget. And these stories are just too important for anyone to forget,” Goodman said.

The celebration is free and includes light refreshments.

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