THH Episode 45: “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Transcript for “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Written and Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

[Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Selma and “How long, not long” speech at Montgomery, Alabama. Song “Avinu Malkeinu”performed by Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation Cantor Aviva Marer with organist Dave Strickland]

Justin Clark: On March 7, 1965, white state troopers violently attacked a group of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama – an event remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Newspapers across the country ran images of police beating and tear gassing African Americans who had been marching to protest the suppression of Black votes and the recent killing of activists. They did not finish their march that day, nor a few days later when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a group of protestors back to the bridge. They knelt in prayer but dared go no further. That night, March 9, a group of white men killed white Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. In response to this violence against Black protesters and their allies, protests erupted across the country.

Dr. King called for religious leaders representing all faiths to join him for a final march – to cross the bridge, journey to Montgomery, scale the steps of the Alabama capitol, and show the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and the world that their movement was righteous and unstoppable.

Rabbi Maurice Davis, the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation and a prominent advocate for civil rights in the city, answered Dr. King’s call.

The Civil Rights Movement was a Black-led and Black-centered struggle for justice, but Jewish Americans made up a disproportionate number of the white activists who joined the campaign. Rabbi Maurice Davis stayed committed to this fight, even in the face of threats to his life. His advocacy stands as an example of how white Hoosiers can be allies for their Black neighbors as they continue the unfinished work of Dr. King and other leaders for Black equality, rights, and power.

I’m Justin Clark, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

It’s worth saying again. Black Americans led the fight for civil rights. Some Jewish Americans joined their fight. Many did not. The story of Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights Movement has sometimes been inaccurately told with a sort of “white savior” narrative. This inaccurate framing detracts from the lessons we can learn from the intersection of Black and Jewish civil rights work about allyship and about the strength of interfaith work for equality.

First of all, not all Jews are white. There is a severe lack of scholarship on how Jews of color interacted with the Civil Rights movement, but primary sources show that their struggles for rights were mainly taking place at a local level. Newspaper research shows that in the 1960s, Black Jews were struggling to be seen and accepted by the rest of their Jewish community, demanding access to the resources provided by Jewish organizations. More historical research is needed in this area.

Second, the “whiteness” of Jewish Americans, even of European descent, was conditional. They were tolerated by their white, Christian neighbors, as long as they did not draw attention to their differences or interfere with the Jim Crow social order and laws. And Jews were kept from positions of prestige or power in many cases. In the South, where they made up only one percent of the population, few Jews joined the Civil Rights movement initially. As Northern Jews increasingly spoke out against segregation in the 1950s and some Southern rabbis added their voices to the integration effort, the Ku Klux Klan retaliated. Synagogues were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami, while unexploded devices were discovered in several others.

Northern Jews had built larger communities with more secure relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors and had gained more political and economic power. Thus, they joined the movement in greater numbers. In Indianapolis, the NAACP and the Jewish Community Relations Council (or JCRC) began working together as early as 1948 to desegregate a local movie theater. By the 1950s, prominent Black leaders like Attorneys Henry Richardson and Willard Ransom called on the JCRC to join the campaign against school segregation and employment discrimination – an area where Jewish Hoosiers were also impacted, though to a significantly lesser extent. And by the late 1950s, the JCRC also joined the fight for open housing – that is, suitable housing for Black Hoosiers in non-segregated neighborhoods. Again, Black organizations like the NAACP, led these struggles, but Jewish leaders and organizations joined the fight at their behest. While there were certainly moments of tension or misunderstanding, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Black leaders called upon the Jewish community and appreciated their support – likely in part because Jewish activists deferred to Black leadership.

So why did Jews join the movement in greater numbers than other groups?

[Song “Sim Shalom” performed by IHC Cantor Aviva Marer and pianist Alex Pryrodny]

For some, the call was faith-based. The Jewish concept of tzedakah, which is Hebrew for “righteousness,” but refers to the moral obligation to helping those in need, is a central belief. So is the concept of tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world” and calls on Jews to work for social justice. Others became involved in the Civil Rights struggle as a natural progression of the largely liberal political ideology of many Northern Jews, who were overwhelmingly Democrat. Some became involved because they were still struggling for their own equal rights, though to a much lesser extent than Black Americans. The lessons of the Holocaust also drove home the link between intolerance and violence. Many Jews saw a general strengthening of the laws protecting minority rights as something that also protected the Jewish community. For most, it was probably a combination of these motivations.

Rabbi Maurice Davis entered the fight for civil rights by the early 1950s in Lexington, Kentucky, where he served as Rabbi of the Adath Israel Congregation. There he worked for the desegregation of schools and universities, addressing meetings and rallies, issuing public statements, and generally speaking truth to power. In 1954, he railed against segregation on public transport and in schools, as well as discrimination in employment and housing. Calling out white privilege, Rabbi Davis stated:

Rabbi Brett Krichiver: “The truth is that equality of opportunity is the inalienable right of the Negro as well as the white . . . We have perpetuated an evil in our land because certain financial advantages accrue from it.”

Clark: Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921, Rabbi Davis earned his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and served as a student rabbi, before accepting the Lexington appointment in 1951. During this tenure, he rose to prominent positions in regional and national Jewish organizations such as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, making him an ideal leader for a large synagogue like the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, or IHC.

In March, 1956, Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the IHC, arriving in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the congregation, which was in the process of planning its new temple at 64th and Meridian, still the location of the IHC today. As the new IHC Rabbi, Davis would continue to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors.

While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel [quote] “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Post reported that his son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool on 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.

Rabbi Davis responded to discrimination not only when it was personal. He believed that it was his duty, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. Two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis told the Jewish Post that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of leadership to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and to [quote] “speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”

In 1959, Rabbi Davis helped revitalize the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, made up of interfaith religious leaders and representatives from the NAACP, Indiana Civil Liberties Union, local philanthropic groups, and government agencies. Their agenda included addressing discrimination in housing, education, employment, law enforcement, and health care. He soon became the council president and focused much of his work on ending racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and helped create segregated neighborhoods.

In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis “honorary chairman,” a leadership position serving under the African American NAACP president, Rev H. L. Burton. The Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on Rabbi Davis’s efforts to fight segregation and inequality through these organizations.

By 1962, he had a regular Jewish Post newspaper column in which he shared his views on issues of the day and advocated for civil rights. His columns were often fiery calls to action. He told his readers:

Krichiver: “ . . . this land of ours is the land of all of ours. It does not belong first of all, or most of all, to any special segment of the population. It is not the private domain of any group by right of inheritance, or color of skin, or ‘manifest destiny.’ America is a multi-racial, multi-religious nation, and we Jews above all others ought to know this, applaud this, support this, and defend this.”

Clark: In September 1963, he used his column to respond 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 [quote] “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful argument against injustice was shaped by the legacy of the Holocaust. He continued:

Krichiver: “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.”

Clark: Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis would receive a bomb threat of his own.

By 1965, the Civil Rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with the police attacks on peaceful Black protestors. That “Bloody Sunday” in Selma included the brutal beating of civil rights leader, and future U.S. Representative John Lewis. When Dr. King issued his call to religious leaders to join him for a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Maurice Davis answered.

When David H. Goldstein of the Indianapolis JCRC and Rabbi Davis arrived in Selma, Alabama, they joined thousands of other activists at Brown Chapel AME Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival:

Krichiver: “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.”

Clark: While President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Goldstein and Rabbi Davis met with rabbis and Jewish leaders who had arrived before them. These rabbis explained that they had been unable to buy a meal or place to stay  . . . because Black Selma residents insisted on giving the Jewish activists whatever they needed.

Goldstein and Rabbi Davis also looked to find out from these rabbis where they could get kippahs or yarmulkes, a traditional Jewish head covering and religious symbol. A shipment was supposed to have recently arrived for the Jewish activists to wear during the march. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be clearly visible as a show of support and numbers. They told them, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Goldstein and Rabbi Davis had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.

Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Shabbat services behind bars on Friday, they announced they would hold another service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, [quote] “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:

Krichiver: All the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”

[Song “Sim Shalom”]

Clark: Dr. King entered the chapel at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Rabbi 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 reverend’s sermon. He explained:

Krichiver: “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.”

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

Krichiver: “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 . . .”

Clark: A now-famous picture captured this moment. Wearing garlands of flowers and linking arms, Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunch, and Civil Rights activist and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Heschel make up the center group of the front row with Rabbi Davis’s smiling face just behind Dr. King in the second row. He described the scene:

Krichiver: “On the street we formed three rows of eight, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.”

Clark: When they arrived at the infamous bridge, they paused to remember those who came before them and had been attacked by the state police. The interfaith march continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen, and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers took pictures of the marchers. Rabbi Davis explained:

Krichiver: “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.”

Clark: 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 Reeb.” 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, he 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 Rabbi Davis finally returned to Indianapolis, he was welcomed with a threatening phone call.

When he answered his phone Monday night at 11:00, an anonymous man asked if he was “the rabbi who went to Selma.” When Rabbi Davis answered affirmatively, the voice continued: “Let me check this list again . . . You are No. 2 in Indianapolis.” The implication was that Rabbi Davis was the second on a hit list of activists. He told the caller he was contacting 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.”

Police searched the house and found no explosives.  But the calls continued. On Tuesday, Rabbi 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.

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

Krichiver: “Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.”

Clark: Like Dr. King, Rabbi 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 Heschel 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:

Krichiver: “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.”

Clark: He stated humbly:

Krichiver: “Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.”

He called others to join him in the larger march for civil rights. He referred to injustices that needed to still be righted 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, but to act. He wrote:

 Krichiver: “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.’”

Clark: Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He held leadership positions with the NAACP, the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, Community Action Against Poverty, and the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations.

He never forgot his march with Dr. King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country, the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day – a new federal holiday incidentally created through a bill authored by Black Indiana legislator Katie Hall. Rabbi Davis recalled:

Krichiver: “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 we loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.”

Clark: Today, of course, Dr. King’s work for equal rights for Black Americans remains unfinished. Over the past year, many white Americans woke up to the violent realities of being Black in the United States and added their voices to the recent protest movements. Advocates such as Dr. Uzodinma Iweala, author and CEO of the Africa Center in Brookyln, stress the crucial role of white allies, as long as the work remains centered on “the importance of respecting and supporting Black people.” White privilege gives white Americans the ability to enter spaces of power and decision-making that are closed to Black Americans. Therefore, advocates stress that white individuals have a responsibility to recognize that privilege and use it to demand equality for their Black neighbors. Silence is complicity.

Writing for The Root, Janée Woods Weber, a social justice advocate and host of the podcast Driving the Green Book, explains that there are right and wrong ways to be a white ally to Black equality movements.  Woods explains that to become an effective white ally, you should first research the history of Black oppression in your community. Know the stories of anti-Black violence and the link between economic disparity and prejudice. Do the work to educate yourself on the issues. Do not put the onerous on Black educators, friends, or colleagues who have known about and experienced prejudice their entire lives. Woods explains:

“People of color cannot and should not shoulder the burden for dismantling the racist, white-supremacist system that devalues and criminalizes black life without the all-in support, blood, sweat and tears of white people. If you are not already a white ally, now is the time to become one.”

Potential allies can look to the lessons left to us by Rabbi Davis and other white Americans who effectively served the civil rights cause. Rabbi Davis demanded accountability from his own community and called on other white Jews to join the effort – making them see social justice as a core part of being Jewish. Rabbi Davis also deferred to Black leaders and their goals, putting his efforts where Black leaders identified problems and answering Dr. King’s call for aid from white allies. Most important, Rabbi Davis not only spoke against racism and discrimination; he took action. He was even willing to risk his life – something Black activists did every time they marched.

Today, much of the work for social justice and advocacy in the Jewish community is being led by Jews of Color. During a webinar organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which can be accessed through the Jews of Color Initiative website, teacher, writer, nonprofit CEO, and advocate Yavilah McCoy calls on white allies to ask themselves: “What am I willing to give up? What am I able to learn, and what am I willing to contribute to halt the perpetuation of racism and white supremacy in this country?” She and other Jews of Color are asking white allies, especially white Jewish allies, to be a part of doing the work to “reallocate and reapportion” power, privilege, and resources to create equality. White allies can look to such voices in their community telling them how to help.  And like Rabbi Davis found, if you’re willing to go for that walk, you will not walk alone.

[End of “Avinu Malkeinu”]

Once again, I’m Justin Clark and this has been Talking Hoosier History.

Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. To view the historical sources, a full transcript, and links to the websites and articles mentioned in this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins. Production and sound engineering also by Jill Weiss Simins. A special thanks to Rabbi Brett Krichiver, senior rabbi at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, for bringing the words of his predecessor to life. You may have noticed that two songs performed in Hebrew stand out in this episode. Both were sung by talented IHC Cantor Aviva Marer. The first, Avinu Malkeinu, was written by Max Janowski. Cantor Aviva recorded at Central Synagogue in NYC with organist and music director Dave Strickland. The second, an arrangement of a traditional folk song called Sim Shalom, was arranged by Bonia Shur and the cantor was accompanied by pianist Alex Pryrodny.

We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes

Jill Weiss Simins, “Walking with Dr. King: The Civil Rights Legacy of Rabbi Maurice Davis, accessed Indiana History Blog.

Krista Kinslow, “The Road to Freedom Is Long and Winding: Jewish Involvement in the Indianapolis Civil Rights Movement,” Indiana Magazine of History 108, No. 1 (March 2012): 1-34, accessed JSTOR.

Howard Sachar, “Jews in the Civil Rights Movement,” A History of Jews in America, accessed  My Jewish Learning.

“Jewish Views on Civil Rights,” accessed Reform Judaism.

Janée Woods Weber, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People,” The Root, August 19, 2014, accessed https://www.theroot.com/12-ways-to-be-a-white-ally-to-black-people-1790876784.

Scott Simon Interview with Uzodinma Iweala, “How White People Can Advocate for the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Weekend Edition, July 11, 2020, accessed npr.org.

Music Credits