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Cincinnati responds to MLK’s call to walk from Selma

Fifty years ago this month, prompted by the March 7 “Bloody Sunday” police attack on non-violent African-American marchers in a Voting Rights campaign in Selma, Ala., Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called for “religious leaders from all over the nation” to come to Selma to help in the campaign to end the state-sanctioned racist roadblocks to black voting

That call resonated in Cincinnati, especially but not exclusively among religious leaders. Pro-civil rights secular activists, black and white, also rallied support. “We all knew each other,” said Tom Luken, a Democrat who was then a City Council member and went to Selma. (He later became mayor and a U.S. Representative.)

And they had key support from the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a close ally of King’s who had moved to Cincinnati from Birmingham in 1961 to be pastor of the West End’s Revelation Baptist Church. (He died in 2011.)

But he had stayed active in the long, early-1960s struggle to end segregation in Birmingham, and had been in Selma off and on in 1965, according to Andrew Manis, author of the Shuttlesworth biography, “A Fire You Can’t Put Out.”

Shuttlesworth flew here from Birmingham on March 13 to lead a march in support of Selma protestors that drew 5,000 people. It had the support of the Catholic Interracial Council, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, First Unitarian Church and the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council.

But the key event for local activists occurred on March 21, when some 13 of them left Lunken Airport early in the morning for Selma to participate in that day’s start of the long-delayed march to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. It was the culmination of the Selma campaign. The Cincinnati contingent walked for several hours that day, and then returned home as planned – but not before a scare – that evening.

Looking at files from The Enquirer and American Jewish Archives at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), as well as talking to some of those who went to Selma from Cincinnati, there emerges somewhat contradictory or at least incomplete information about that journey.

That might partly be because, as participant Yvonne Robertson (wife of Cincinnati Royals basketball star Oscar Robertson) said, “With something that important and traumatic, you forget things.”

A March 21, 1965, Enquirer story about the participation of Robertson and Terry Embry (wife of another Royal star, Wayne Embry) on the charter flight said that Rev. Richard Isler of Cincinnati Council of Churches worked with University of Cincinnati Professor Robert Hoover to organize it.

Those who were coming – besides Robertson, Embry and Hoover – were listed as UC Professor Sherwin Cooper; UC faculty member James Gordon; campus ministers John Clark and Ann Drake; Rabbi Albert Goldman of Wise Temple; Rev. David Mills of Our Saviour Episcopal Church; Rev. Clinton Reynolds of Ninth Street Baptist Church; UC librarian Jan Gustke; and UC students Harrison Sims and Gene Wilson.

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But Luken said that William Bowen – the local NAACP head who would become a Democratic state representative and senator – and Abe Goldhagen – a NAACP activist who owned the Wein Bar in Avondale – contacted him about the flight.

In a 1981 Enquirer interview with Goldhagen, who like Bowen is now deceased, he said, “The group that went to Selma, Ala., for a freedom march in the 1960s gathered at the bar the night before.”

Robertson remembers Luken and Bowen aboard the flight, but also mentions Rabbi Victor E. Reichert of Rockdale Temple.

American Jewish Archives files mention that two other Cincinnati rabbis came later in March – Charles Mintz of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Murray Blackman of Rockdale Temple. Also going at some point was Norbert Samuelson, director of University of Cincinnati’s Hillel organization. And a local Unitarian historian said that the minister of St. John’s Unitarian Church in Clifton, Clark Wells, rushed to Selma soon after a Unitarian minister, James Reeb, was attacked by racists there on March 11 and died on March 13.

When the Cincinnati group flew into Selma on March 21, they at first didn’t find a ride waiting for them. Here again, memories differ. Luken remembers the group being picked up by a well-known Cincinnati activist already in Selma, the late Lucy Green, known for her red hair. She had driven to Selma earlier with Marjorie Parham, publisher of Cincinnati Herald, at Shuttlesworth’s request.

But Parham says it was actually her who picked up the Cincinnatians at the airport – at least as many as would fit in her car. “Lucy and I drove down (earlier) and we worked helping to feed people and house people, because Selma isn’t a very large town,” Parham said. “When the marching actually started, we came home.”

On the first day of the 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march, the Cincinnatians were supposed to take a bus from the designated stopping point to a flight home from Montgomery. But the ride wasn’t there. “We found somebody who had a truck and we rented it,” Luken recalled. “That was a very interesting ride. It was an open truck. We stood.”

It’s estimated that 25,000 marchers – blacks and whites, clergy and secular supporters – were on hand at the 54-mile march’s conclusion on March 25. And they heard Shuttlesworth speak before King did. Referring to the Alabama State Capitol that was the seat of political power in Alabama, he said, “Our goal is not out here, but in there where Jefferson Davis stood.”

There was another important Cincinnati connection to the Selma to Montgomery march. An Associated Press photograph shows a goateed, white-haired man between Shuttlesworth and King in the procession – all are wearing Hawaiian lei.

He is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who at the time taught at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and was nationally known. Born in Poland in 1907 and educated in Germany before being deported back by the Nazis, he escaped the Holocaust in 1940 because the president of HUC, Julian Morgenstern, fought to get U.S. visas for him and ten other college professors, plus five rabbinical students, to come from Europe to the school’s Cincinnati campus.

Heschel taught here through the war years. He also met his future wife in Cincinnati, before moving to New York in 1946.

“My father always raised me with a feeling that HUC had made my life possible by saving his, and I grew up knowing the name of Julian Morgenstern as someone very special,” said his daughter, Susannah Heschel, who teaches Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. “His name was always spoken with awe in our household.”

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