A month after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood on the front line of the 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, to demand voting rights for African Americans, another march unfolded in Boston.
There, on April 23, 1965, King led more than 20,000 people on a march from Roxbury, the city’s historic Black neighborhood, to the Boston Common. They stretched for nearly a mile, in a historic moment for Boston and its Black community.
Now, in honor of both King’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of Heschel’s death, Boston Common is home to marchers again. On Friday, Jewish Bostonians and allies walked in a procession from the nearby Central Reform Temple to the park for the city’s dedication of a new monument of King and his wife and civil rights partner Coretta Scott King.
“We thought this would be a wonderful moment to rekindle the alliance between the African American Civil Rights community and the Jewish community,” Rabbi Michael Shire, the synagogue’s rabbi and a faculty member at Hebrew College told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a phone conversation a few days before the event.
King had professional and personal ties to the city he came to call his second home. He had earned his PhD in theology at Boston University. It was also the place where King first met and courted Coretta Scott, who was earning her master’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music.
The largest American-made bronze sculpture
The Embrace, a massive sculpture and public memorial designed by renowned artist Hank Willis Thomas, honors the couple’s legacy and the role this city played in their lives. Unveiled Friday, the 20-foot-high bronze sculpture evokes the Kings in a hug that was inspired by a photograph taken in 1964, soon after the announcement that King had been chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Embrace is the largest American-made bronze sculpture in the country, according to Imari K. Paris Jeffries, executive director of Embrace Boston, the nonprofit leading the memorial.
“It is Boston’s Statue of Liberty,” he told WBUR.
The procession, which drew about 100 people, was meant to evoke the bond between the two giants of faith and the ties between the Black and Jewish communities represented by the Selma march, when Heschel famously carried a Torah scroll.
Rain cleared enough for the Boston Jews to carry a Torah of their own, which was rolled to this week’s portion, the beginning of the Book of Exodus. “It is a story of freedom and liberation,” Shire said before the procession. “As we march today, we will think about how that story is ever present in all of our lives.”
Jill Silverstein, a synagogue board member who cofounded its racial justice committee following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, said the committee members studied slavery and racism today, and engaged in self-reflection, said Silverstein, who watched the monument’s progress from her home nearby and called it “exquisite and different.” She said the march on Friday, which the synagogue group discussed with Embrace Boston leaders, is a first step in taking action as partners with others to combat racism.
“It‘s a rekindling of our commitment to racial justice, equity and equality,” Silverstein said.
Antisemitism on the rise
The march comes at a moment of challenge. Antisemitic incidents and sentiments are on the rise, according to watchdog groups; Boston has been home to several in recent years, including the stabbing of a rabbi in 2021 that ignited shows of solidarity within the Jewish community. What’s more, several recent episodes have challenged Black-Jewish relations, including an extended antisemitic outburst by rapper Kanye West and the promotion of an antisemitic film by NBA star Kyrie Irving.
Emmanuel Church, an Episcopal congregation where the synagogue is located, and Congregation Mishkan Tefila, a Conservative synagogue in Brookline, were early partners for the event that the two synagogues intend as the first step to deepen their work with Black churches on pressing issues of racial and economic justice.
“In this atmosphere of antisemitism and racism, Blacks and Jews need to speak loudly in support of each other and against hatred and prejudice,” said Rabbi Marcia Plumb of Mishkan Tefilah in an email. (Plumb and Shire are married to each other.)
Among others who marched was Rabbi Jim Morgan, who leads congregations at both Harvard Hillel and for residents of Hebrew Senior Life communities, which sent a handful of residents to the event.
“There are people in my community who had taken part in the civil rights movement in the 1960s,” Morgan said.
Other cosponsors include the American Jewish Committee New England; the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston; Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action; the Miller Center at Hebrew College and Center Communities of Brookline, residences of Hebrew Senior Life.
On Friday evening, Reverend Liz Walker, co-chair of the Embrace Boston committee and the pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church, will speak at Central Reform’s Friday night Shabbat service,
“The moment is almost beyond words … because of what the Kings meant here in Boston,” Walker, one of Boston’s most prominent Black clergy members, told JTA by phone. She said she planned to speak about how, at a time of divisiveness and polarization, a memorial “that speaks of love, unity, courage and justice” stands out.
Describing King and Heschel as prophetic voices, Walker said, “Those relationships [between faith leaders and the community] are more vital than ever and have to be lifted up because they are going to guide the world through this kind of minefield of negativity and animosity.”