The morning after we arrived in Montgomery, we woke to a quiet hustle of the march organizers adjusting the day’s plans based on the emerging information from police and from other organizers. It was the first and only day of marching for our group from Beth David, but it was the fourth day of the 40- day march for others who had arrived over the weekend. By 7 am, while the rest of us were pouring coffee, choosing between Southern biscuits and hash brown and some healthier options (I had hard boiled eggs and fruit, but couldn’t resist the hash browns), the lead team was out the door to start marching for the day. The logistics were complicated by the fact that the police, who would be escorting us all day, didn’t want more than a few of us marching during rush hour, since we would be taking up a lane of traffic, and the road along our rural route between Montgomery and Tuskegee was only one one lane in each direction.
Additionally, because the weather was so hot and humid, they weren’t planning on having any of us walk the whole route. In order to cover the ground we needed to cover that day to get to Washington DC for the rally on September 16, a lead team would be heading out early in the morning to cover the beginning of the route, and the rest of us would catch up with them by bus after the morning rush hour. In the end, the lead team somehow managed to cover 18 miles by the end of rush hour!
That meant that we had an easier task for the rest of the day, so they kept the pace slow and gave everyone breaks on the air-conditioned buses. They kept us cool with sun hats and ice packs, and they kept us hydrated with water and Gatorade, not to mention fruit, trail mix, and occasionally some nice chilled chocolate along the walk. And I appreciated all of it – it was up to 103 degrees in the afternoon, with a heat index of 114.
But our group, which ranged in age from teens to people in their 80’s and included a man walking with a cane and others with mobility challenges, made it through the heat of the day without smiles on our faces. Longtime civil rights activists led chants, Millennial musicians led old and new protest songs, and I helped teach some Jewish songs and remind people of Peter, Paul and Mary lyrics. (Take a listen to some of the singing below!) People driving by us in the other direction often waved hello – good Southern hospitality – but many people, mostly black, also honked their horns or gave us a thumbs up to show their support.
Only one driver gave us a thumbs down out the window of his truck. The state troopers who accompanied us were supportive and friendly, which was a poignant reminder of just how much has changed in the past 50 years, even as much work remains to be done. Several of the officers were also curious and interested to learn about the Torah.
I was one of three rabbis marching for the day, and so Rabbi Robert Loewy of Metairie, LA and Rabbi David Weis of Northfield, NJ and I shared the honor (and the weight!) of carrying the Torah through the course of the day. But lots of other marchers were excited to help carry the Torah, too, so our arms were never tired for long. Although it was hot, I also thought it was worth the extra layer to wear a tallit, or prayer shawl, which made me more recognizably Jewish to some people, and more recognizably clergy to others, even if they didn’t know the significance of the tallit. Because of Beth David’s longtime commitment to social justice, especially in the arena of civil rights under our Rabbi Emeritus Henry Cohen, I was proud to be marching together with Ed and Jane, two members of the Beth David, and also to wear a tallit that belongs to the congregation. Next time you come to services, if you happen to pick up a tallit from the rack at the door to our sanctuary, you might just wear the one I marched in. (But only after I get it back from the dry cleaner’s – it was hot out!)
I’ll write more soon about the stories of some of the people I met on the march, and some of the learning we did about next steps toward making substantive change toward justice in our country. But for now, I’m left with the feeling of just how inspiring it can be to walk in the hot sun when you’re walking as part of something so much bigger than your own steps. Just like the journey to Washington over the next month, the journey to justice is taken step by step, it isn’t always comfortable or easy, and you can’t do the whole thing alone. But together, with thanks to those air conditioned buses, good songs that keep your tired legs moving, and plenty of Gatorade, we’re going to get to Washington.