History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, December 2, 1938, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Children under eighteen years of age make up more than half of the approximately 22 million people seeking refuge today. [1] We read statistics like this often, and sometimes our empathy for such human devastation of can get lost in the numbers. The problems can feel remote, foreign, and unrelated to our own daily struggles. And that is precisely how many Americans felt just before the outbreak of WWII, as the number of people applying for refuge in the United States multiplied. In 1938, 125,000 asylum seekers applied for the 27,000 visas under the restrictive U.S. quota system. By 1939, that number increased to over 300,000. [2] A Fortune magazine poll from the summer of 1938, showed that 67% of Americans thought “we should try to keep them out.” Only 5% thought the U.S. government should raise the quotas to allow more people asylum. [3]

Fortune, July 1938, reprinted in Ishaan Thardoor, “What Americans Though of Jewish Refugees on the Eve of World War II,” Washington Post, November 17, 2015, accessed Washington Post.

Again, the staggering statistics can be numbing. But even at our most ambivalent, the stories of children fleeing persecution seem to break through our indifference and stir us to act. For example, in 1938, British citizens lobbied their government to act on behalf on  children fleeing Austria and Germany after the Anschluss and Kristallnacht. They agreed to fund the transportation, care, and education of these children and infants. These rescue missions, known as Kindertransport, saved ten thousand children from annihilation.

“Kindertransport,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Despite the prevailing attitudes towards immigrants in the United States, some hoped their fellow Americans would make an exception for child refugees. Hope came in 1939, in the form of the Wagner-Rogers Bill that aimed to bring 20,000 children escaping Nazi Germany to the United States. Hoosiers both supported and opposed refugee immigration and the bill. Looking through Indiana newspapers for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s History Unfolded project, we can see what Hoosiers knew about the issue, how they aided, and how they failed these small asylum seekers. (Find out how you can participate in the History Unfolded Project which helps the USHMM determine what Americans knew about the Holocaust.)

USHMM caption: Jewish refugee children, part of a Children’s Transport (Kindertransport) from Germany, upon arrival in Harwich. Great Britain, December 12, 1938, Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library Limited, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

The Wagner-Rogers Bill

(Richmond) Palladium-Item, May 22, 1958, 11, accessed Newspapers.com

Clarence Pickett, an Earlham College professor and leader of Quaker relief organization American Friends Service Committee, led the drafting of the bill in December 1938. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers (R-MA) introduced this legislation in both the House and Senate on February 9, 1939. The bill would allow 20,000 children under the age of fourteen to immigrate to the United States (10,000 in 1939 and that same amount in 1940) outside of the established quota. While the bill did not specify that these were Jewish children, “the realities of the refugee crisis in Europe made this an obvious and understood fact. [4] The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) quoted Senator Wagner:

The admission of a handful of unfortunate people means little in the economic life of 120 million people, but it means a great deal for us and the world as a symbol of the strength of democratic convictions and our common faith.

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, June 2, 1939, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Support for the bill came from unlikely places. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) both supported the legislation, specifying that the children were not a threat to American jobs, an oft-cited fear for those with anti-immigration sentiments. In fact, Pickett argued, they would become consumers, helping the economy. The U.S. Department of Labor agreed, and offered to place the children via their Children’s Bureau.  Leaders from all of these organizations testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of the bill. The (Indianapolis) Jewish Post reported via the JTA that John Brophy, National Director of the CIO “told the committee  that organized labor had no fears of an undue influx of refugees resulting from the Wagner-Rogers Bill.” Eleanor Roosevelt also spoke in favor of the bill, allowing herself to be quoted on a heated political issue for the first time in her six years as first lady, according to the USHMM. She told UP reporters:

I hope very much it will pass. It seems to be a wise way to do a humanitarian thing.

“The Conscience of the American People”

At the same time in Indiana, several notable Hoosiers were at work on grassroots campaigns to rescue German-Jewish children. Prominent Jewish civic leader Sarah Wolf Goodman and the leadership of the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, among others, raised money to bring refugees to the United States. We examined these efforts thoroughly in post 5 of this series “Jewish Refugees, Hoosier Rescue.” But these were small-scale operations. The sweeping action needed had to come from the federal government.

History Unfolded Post 5: “Jewish Refugees, Hoosier Rescue,” Hoosier State Chronicles Blog.
(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, July 28, 1939, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On December 16, 1938 Jewish Post Editor Gabriel M. Cohen made a passionate argument for congressional action. Cohen stated that protests against the Nazi perpetrators and prayers for the victims were not enough. It was time for “immediate relief.” Cohen noted that President Roosevelt was not seeking to extend the quota system, but that maybe it was not up to the president to lead the way on this issue. Cohen continued:

USHMM caption: A Jewish refugee girl from Vienna, Austria, upon arrival in Harwich after her arrival in England on a Kindertransport. United Kingdom, December 12, 1938, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Possibly such a demand cannot at this time come from the President. It can and should come, however, from the conscience of the American people.

He noted especially the responsibility of communities and leaders of faith. He expressed his confidence in American Jews to take a leading role in the care of these children

We are certain that there are thousands of Jewish families in the United States, who, in the face of the present crisis, will gladly take refugee children into their homes and provide them with food and shelter as long as necessary.

Cohen’s prediction was correct. The JTA reported that at an April 1939 joint committee hearing for the bill, attorney Wilbur Large presented 1,400 letters from citizens around the country offering to adopt a refugee child. In fact, the AP reported that Paul Belsser, head of the Child Welfare League of America testified that there were more than enough homes for the children with twelve applications coming in for every child adopted in America.

Marcus Blechman,, Photograph of Helen Hayes, 1945, Henrietta Alice Metcalf Performing Arts Photographic Collection, Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky, https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7gxd0qsz74_205_1/

Hollywood actress Helen Hayes offered to adopt a refugee child herself. Hayes told the committee that her grandmother, who had nine children, lived by the motto, “There is always room for one more.” Then, joking aside, Hayes addressed the lawmakers:

There is room in my family for one more. I beg you to let them in.

One senator “heckled” her, according to the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, asking sarcastically, “Do you mean to say you’d adopt a child unseen?” Hayes replied sharply, “I never saw my own child until it was delivered!”

“A Stand Against A Haven”

In his plea for congressional action, Cohen also anticipated and refuted opposing arguments. Echoing Pickett, the Jewish Post editor wrote:

Whatever economic objections and fears of increased unemployment Congress may have with regard to enlarging the existing immigration quota, there can be no such objections to the admission of children.

Also like Pickett, Cohen argued that the children would first be consumers before they would be job seekers. He continued, “Their presence in the community would stimulate business.”

USHMM caption: Children aboard the President Harding look at the Statue of Liberty as they pull into New York harbor. They were brought to the United States by Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. New York, United States, June 1939, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Steve Pressman, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Again, Cohen’s predictions were correct. The bill’s opposition focused on the “economic dangers” of increasing immigration just as the country was climbing out of the Great Depression. Senator Robert R. Reynolds (D-NC) argued that the children would grow up and “undoubtedly keep our own children from jobs and work that they are rightfully entitled to.” Reynolds pledged to “filibuster the plan to death,” according to the Associated Press (AP).

Meanwhile, in Indiana, members of the American Legion‘s Subcommittee on Immigration gathered in Indianapolis to begin a series of meetings on the bill and establish the official position of the national organization. According to a May 3 AP article via the Kokomo Tribune :

Some members of the immigration committee were reported to be favoring the admission of the children for humanitarian purposes while others were opposing it on the grounds American children would suffer by the influx of additional foreigners.

By May 5, 1939, the American Legion made its decision to oppose the bill and adopted a report of their official position. Announcing their decision from their Indianapolis headquarters, American Legion Chairman Jeremiah Cross called the bill “class legislation” because it “would benefit persecuted minorities in only one country.” According to the International News Service via the Hammond Times, Cross claimed that accepting the children would “break up homes and thus be contrary to the American tradition of preserving home life.” National Commander Stephen Chadwick stated that there were too many children at home that needed assistance. Chadwick continued:

We should solve this problem at home before extending a helping hand to foreign nations.

The local Franklin, Indiana, American Legion chapter encouraged the legionnaires gathered at Indianapolis to go further in denying asylum. The Edinburg Daily Courier and Franklin Evening Star reported that the district recommended “a ten-year curtailment of all immigration into the United States” on top of opposing the bill. At the final session of their meetings on immigration, American Legion director Homer L. Chaillaux announced that the powerful organization would indeed back a policy of “curtailed immigration for 10 years to solve the unemployment problem” and “halt the flow of undesirable aliens into this country.” The Evening Star reported that the Legion also reiterated that they were taking “a stand against a haven for thousands of German refugee children seeking admittance to this country, on the grounds that entrance of the children would clear the way for a increased number of parents and close relatives.”

USHMM caption: Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lydia Chagoll, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

The anti-immigration position of the American Legion and other organizations (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution) was translated into policy. The Senate Committee on Immigration proposed admitting the children but counting them against the quota. Senator Reynolds proposed the children be admitted in exchange for an end to all quota immigration for five years. This is exactly what leaders of organizations dedicated to rescue feared. James G. McDonald, chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee (and a former Indiana University professor who has been covered in detail in our History Unfolded series post 4 and post 5)  predicted this response and the death of the bill. Assistant Secretary of State George S. Messersmith recommended to McDonald that his advisory committee not attempt to intervene, as any effort to expand the quota would result in a cutting of the quotas instead. Congress was eager for the chance to respond to American anti-immigration sentiment. McDonald worked behind the scenes to put pressure on President Roosevelt to intervene, but the president declined to act or comment on the issue. McDonald wrote despairingly in a private letter that the settlement of refugees was “dependent upon the attitude of governments which are little influenced by humanitarian factors.” [5]

USHMM caption: A child wears the compulsory Jewish badge. The “Z” stands for the word “Jew” (Zidov) in Croatian. Yugoslavia, ca. 1941, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

The amendments added by the legislation’s opponents, nullified its intent, and Senator Wagner withdrew his bill on July 1, 1939. The Jewish Post reported that antisemitic groups and publications praised Senator Reynolds. The newspaper also reported on Reynold’s founding of the Vindicators Association, which was “an ultra-nationalist, isolationist, nativist, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist” group, according to the North Carolina History Project. The Post reported via correspondent:

Speaking of refugees, Senator Bob Reynolds, of North Carolina, who sees the overthrow of the republic if 20,000 refugee children are allowed to enter this country in the space of two years, has just opened a new headquarters for his organization, The Vindicators, here in Washington. It’s right behind the Supreme Court Building, and cost $20,000.

The New York Times and other national publications also condemned Reynold’s extreme anti-immigration stance and linked him to antisemitic groups. But the senator continued to advocate for isolationism. The Congressional Record reported his 1941 address to the Senate:

I wish to say — and I say it without the slightest hesitation — that if I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.

USHMM caption: This photograph taken soon after liberation shows young camp survivors from Buchenwald’s “Children’s Block 66″—a special barracks for children. Germany, after April 11, 1945, Federation Nationale des Deportes et Internes Resistants et Patriots, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Private citizens and charitable organizations continued their rescue efforts (and this series will continue to share the stories of such notable Hoosiers.) However, the immigration quotas remained in effect, denying asylum to those fleeing Nazi persecution. As we reflect this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, remember the 1.5 million children who were killed by Germans and collaborators — not as “unwanted aliens” and not as statistics — but as boys, girls, and even infants who deserved a future. And we can’t help but regret that Cohen’s appeal in the Jewish Post to “Save the Children” went unanswered. In it, he concluded:

Tens of thousands of innocent children are now exposed to a life of torture or to a slow painful death . . . America must do its share. Let us open our gates to their outstretched hands.

Learn more about the  History Unfolded project and about issues facing Refugees Today through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Notes

  1. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refugees Today,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees-today.
  2. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refugees” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees.
  3. Poll: , Fortune, July 1938, reprinted in Ishaan Thardoor, “What Americans Though of Jewish Refugees on the Eve of World War II,” Washington Post, November 17, 2015, accessed https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/what-americans-thought-of-jewish-refugees-on-the-eve-of-world-war-ii/?utm_term=.2a6a6f677323.
  4. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” Wagner-Rogers Bill,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/wagner-rogers-bill.
  5. Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2009), 160-161.

Walking with Dr. King: The Civil Rights Legacy of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.

With these simple words Rabbi Maurice Davis described his 1965 trip to Selma to the readers of the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post. Rabbi Davis’s “walk” was a protest led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against institutional racism, voter suppression, and violence against African Americans. When King asked civil rights leaders from around the country to join him in Alabama, Davis had no question that it was his duty to join the demonstration of solidarity. Davis had long worked for civil rights through both secular and faith-based channels. He advocated for community action in his sermons to the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. He led several civic action councils that combated segregation, racist policies, and poverty. And he extended his appeal for civil rights to the entire city through a regular newspaper column and a television show. Mostly, however, Rabbi Davis marched at Selma “because it was right.”

Jewish Post, January 20, 1956, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“You Were a Spark for Us”

Maurice Davis was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921. Census records show that his Russian-born father Jacob managed a garage while his mother Sadie cared for five children. They did well for themselves and were able to send Maurice first to Brown University in 1939 and then to the University of Cincinnati where he received his B.A. in 1945. He then received his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. After serving several different congregations as a student rabbi, he became rabbi of Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky in 1951. By this point he was already active in the local civil rights movement and joined the Kentucky Commission Against Segregation.

Sketch of current home of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation at 6501 North Meridian Street, accessed https://ihcindy.org/who_we_are/history

Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (IHC) in March 1956, in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the large congregation which was in the process of planning their new temple at 64th and Meridian, which still houses the IHC today (a move from their earlier location at the Market Street Temple.) As the ninth Rabbi serving the IHC, Davis continued to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors, according to the Jewish Post. In his first year, he attracted eighty new congregants, and  temple brotherhood president Herman Logan wrote in the congregational bulletin:

You were a spark for us which turned into a flame when a new brotherhood was beginning.

It was an auspicious start for the young rabbi.

“Something Less Than Welcome”

While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, his wife Marion, and their sons Jay and Michael, some other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Post reported that Rabbi Davis’s son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool at 5640 North Illinois Street. The Rabbi told his congregation that Jay unfortunately learned first about the club’s “wonderful slide” and then its anti-Semitic policies. Jay summarized the situation as only a child could, stating: “Gee whiz, dad, it isn’t fair.” The Rabbi then had to explain the difference between legal segregation and social segregation to his son. The rabbi told his congregation that while many people think segregation in the private sphere “has no meaning” and should be tolerated, it does have meaning to the people it affects. And in this case, the meaning was that a nine-year-old boy was made to feel inferior to his peers.

Jewish Post, January 1, 1958, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Jewish Post pursued the story, reporting on a survey of five “exclusive” Indianapolis clubs. Each club, including the Riviera Club, claimed not to discriminate against Jews. Some of the club chairmen and presidents even claimed they had Jewish members. However, when the Jewish Post interviewed the club managers, they reported that they knew of no Jewish members. Others in the club leadership claimed no Jews had applied for membership or that they did not keep track of religious affiliation. From the perspective of the Post, none gave a straight answer.

Jewish Post, July 17, 1959, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jewish Post, July 29, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Davis did not only respond to discrimination when it was personal. He believed that it was his responsibility, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. In response to a 1960 Indianapolis Times poll of religious leaders (reported by the Jewish Post), two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis (Congregation B’nai Torah and Shara Tefila) reported that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of the synagogue to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and “to speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”

Jewish Post, October 13, 1961, 15, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Davis not only advocated for equality for Jews, but all people facing oppression. He encouraged Jews to look beyond their own community and work to end discrimination everywhere. He stated, “A decent and sensitive America is good for all Americans and we must help her be so” (more here). Indianapolis’s African American community took note. In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis its “honorary chairman” and the Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on his efforts to fight segregation and inequality. As president of the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, Davis worked to end racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and created segregated neighborhoods (more here). He conducted personal investigations of restaurants and other establishments which had reputations for discriminating against African Americans and reported his findings in the Jewish Post (more here). By 1962, he had a regular column giving his views on issues of the day and often advocating for civil rights.

Jewish Post, July 27, 1962, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

His columns were  often fiery calls to action. For example, in September 1963, he responded to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama where four African American children were killed “while putting on their choir robes.” Rabbi Davis, however, blamed not just the bomber and not just the racism and negligence of the governor and police chief, but “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful arguments against injustice were often shaped by the legacy of the holocaust. He continued:

Segregation and discrimination, lead to bombing and lynching as surely as anti-Semitism leads to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And any man who walks that path, has not the right to be amazed where it leads. We who know the end of the road, must say this openly, and believe this implicitly, and practice it publicly. And privately. And always.

Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis received a bomb threat of his own.

“My Name Was One of Them”

Photograph of John Lewis, Hosea William, Albert Turner and Bob Mants Leading Marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Records Group 406, accessed National Archives Catalog.

By 1965, the civil rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the suppression of African American votes and the recent killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (more here: International Civil Rights Center and Museum). On March 7, the protesters led by John Lewis began a peaceful march, but were soon stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by state troopers and Dallas County police who were waiting for them. In an incident remembered as “Bloody Sunday,” police violently attacked the unarmed demonstrators with clubs and tear gas. Police beat Lewis unconscious. On March 9, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flew to Selma and called for others to join him. That day, a larger group followed King back to the bridge to kneel in prayer, but dared go no further as a federal judge had issued a restraining order against the march. Many were disappointed that King did not attempt to march on toward Montgomery. Others, however, credit his concession with expediting the passage of the Voting Rights Act.*

Hammond Times, March 8, 1965, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The night of the second march to the bridge a group of white men killed Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. Related protests erupted across the country and King called for a third march. On Sunday, March 21, civil rights leaders and supporters from around the country arrived in Selma to march over the infamous bridge to Montgomery. Rabbi Maurice Davis would march in the front lines.

When the Indianapolis Star reported that Rabbi Davis and David H. Goldstein (of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council) had left for Selma, the newspaper estimated that these Hoosiers would join around 300 people. Instead, Davis reported that they joined thousands at Brown Chapel Methodist Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival at the church:

As we approached Selma we saw the Army begin to position itself. Jeeps and trucks filled with soldiers, hospital units, and communications experts clustered along the way . . . The road leading to the church was lined with National Guardsmen, recently federalized.

While President Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Davis and Goldstein met with some other rabbis after the service who had arrived before them. These rabbis told them that they were unable to buy a meal or place to stay, the reason being the Selma residents insisted on giving the activists whatever they needed.

Davis and Goldstein also looked to find out from the other rabbis where they could get yarmulkes, as a shipment was supposed to have recently arrived. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be as clearly visible as those of other faiths to show their support and numbers. They told Davis, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Davis and Goldstein had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.

Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Sabbath behind bars Friday, they announced they would hold a  service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, “Over 600 Negroes and whites, Jewish and non-Jews joined in the impromptu havdalah services for one of the most unique of its kind in history.” According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, those in attendance, regardless of their faith, donned yarmulkes “in respectful emulation of rabbis who participated in demonstrations.” In Selma, they became known as “freedom caps.” Davis reported that “all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Daily News Bulletin, March 23, 1965, accessed Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Dr. King entered the chapel at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Davis was asked if he would represent the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. When he agreed, he was pulled up onto the platform next to King during the latter’s “magic” sermon. Davis explained:

Nothing but the word “magic” can quite describe what it is he does to so many. When King speaks, you are not an audience. You are participants. And when he finished we were ready to march.

Photo Courtesy of the Jewish Post Archive. Rabbi Davis can be seen just behind King and to his left.

The thousands of demonstrators were organized into rows with the first three rows chosen by Dr. King. Davis stated:

Before the march began a list of 20 names were read to accompany Rev. King in the first three rows, and my name was one of them. I marched proudly at the front . . .

He continued:

On the street we formed three rows of 8, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.

Richmond Palladium-Item, March 22, 1965, 14, accessed Newspapers.com.

When they arrived at the infamous bridge they paused to remember those who came before them and were attacked. They continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers were taking pictures of the marchers. Davis explained:

This is an Alabama form of intimidation. I kept remembering that these were the same state troopers who two weeks earlier had ridden mercilessly into a defenseless mass of people . . . We kept on marching.

The marchers passed people who “waved, wept, prayed, and shouted out words of encouragement” and others, “whites who taunted, jeered, cursed” or “stood with stark amazement at this incredible sight.” At one point they passed a car painted with hateful signs “taunting even the death of Reverend Reed.” Other signs read “Dirty communist clergy go home” and “integrationist scum stay away.”

Rabbi Davis marched for twelve hours without sitting down or eating. Unfortunately, Davis did not get to finish the march. Instead, he was called to fly to Cincinnati that night to be with his father-in-law who had been admitted to the hospital with a serious illness. When Daivs finally returned to Indianapolis, he was welcomed with a threatening phone call.

“It’ll be too late when it goes off.”

When Rabbi Davis answered his phone Monday night at 11:00, an anonymous man asked if he was “the rabbi who went to Selma.” When Davis answered affirmatively, the voice continued: “Let me check this list again . . . You are No. 2 in Indianapolis.” The implication was that Davis was the second on a hit list of activists. Davis told the caller he was calling the police, but the man replied: “It won’t do any good to call the police . . . it’ll be too late when it goes off.”

Jewish Post, March 26, 1965, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Police searched the house and found nothing.  But the calls continued. On Tuesday, Davis took the phone off the hook at 2 A.M. so the family could sleep. Letters arrived as well full of “unbelievable filth, ugly statements,” and intimate knowledge of his larger civil rights work.

Davis stated vaguely that he was required to take “protective measures” to protect his family. The rabbi did not expound at the time, but later his children recalled that they had a “babysitter” who carried a .45-caliber revolver under his jacket. From his statements to the press, it seems the rabbi was most hurt that the threats were possibly coming from fellow Hoosiers. He told the Jewish Post:

Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.

“The Time Has Come to Worship with Our Lives”

Like King, Davis did not dwell on the darkness of humanity but used it as a chance to shine a light of hope on the potential of his fellow man. Just days after the threats on his family, the Jewish Post published a section of a sermon in which Davis explained why he felt called to join King in Selma. Davis stated that many people had asked him why he went. And he had trouble at first finding the right words. He liked the Christian term of “witnessing,” that is, seeing God in an event. He also liked the Hebrew term that Rabbi Abraham Herschel, who was also at Selma used: “kiddush ha-Shem,” that is, sanctifying God’s name. But in his personable manner, he ended up giving a simpler explanation to the Post:

I know now what I was doing in Selma, Alabama. I was worshiping God. I was doing it on U.S. 80, along with 6,000 others who were doing precisely the same thing, in 6,000 different ways.

Jewish Post, April 16, 1965, 27, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

He called others to join him. He referred to injustices that needed to still be overcome in order to unite all of humanity as a “brotherhood postponed” and tasked his followers with making sure that while such unity is delayed, it is not destroyed. The way to achieve justice was not only to pray in the traditional way, but also with actions. He wrote:

Brotherhood postponed. The time has come, and it has been a long time coming. The time has come to worship with our lives as with our lips, in the streets as in the sanctuaries. And we who dare to call God, God, must begin to learn the challenge which that word contains. “One God over all” has to mean “one brotherhood over all.”

Muncie Evening Press, April 28, 1965, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He was again named honorary chairman of the NAACP. He served as a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights and on the board of the United Negro College Fund. He was president of the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations and organized the Community Action Against Poverty (sponsored by the City of Indianapolis and the President’s Commission on Equal Opportunity).

Jewish Post, January 22, 1986, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

He never forgot his march with King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country:

You hear a song, or sniff an aroma, and all of a sudden you are miles and years away . . . It happens, too, with birthdays. January 20 was a very special day. The first national observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I hear them say the words, pronounce the name, and in the twinkling of an eye I am suddenly in Selma, Alabama with some 80,000 other people; Jews, and Protestants, and Catholics, and atheists, and agnostics . . . We were there because of a man whom we admired as much as we loved, and whom he loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.

Notes:

The impetus for this story came from Jennie Cohen, Publisher, Jewish Post & Opinion.

Sources for Davis’s report of the march:

Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Heschel Finds The Right Word For It,” (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 2, 1965, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Davis Tells Why He Went to Selma,”(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 16, 1965, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Other sources are linked within the text.

*For more on the disappointment of some civil rights activists with King’s role in the Selma to Montgomery marches see: Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., eds., Freedom on My Mind: A HIstory of African Americans with Documents (Boston and New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s 2013), 675-6.