The Selma to Montgomery March is a significant moment in U.S. history that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lesley Levin (Upsilon—Indiana University, 1969) was in high school when she decided to begin her journey in allyship and join the march. We interviewed Lesley to discuss her memories of that time, and how her upbringing and religious values led her there.
Who I am—how I was raised and my religious [values]—led meLeslie Levin (Upsilon—Indiana University, 1969)
to go to the march. I do these things because of how I was raised,
and I was raised in an observant, reformed home. That’s more
about why I do what I do and how I approach people.
To gain a full understanding of Lesley’s experience and the importance of the march, we invite you to read below about the events and numerous attempts that led to the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, AL in March 1965. If you would prefer to jump straight to the interview, you can do so by clicking here.
The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s was a tumultuous time in American history. Though new laws, awareness and improved treatment of Black Americans eventually concluded this era, the road to get there was fraught with resistance and violence. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, eligible Black voters in most southern states were still faced with obstacles when registering to vote. In some of the most egregious cases, only two percent of eligible Black voters in Dallas County of Alabama (where Selma is located) had successfully registered; less than one percent succeeded in Montgomery County.
Bloody Sunday: The First Attempt
Peaceful protests occurred regularly to bring attention to the disenfranchisement of Black voters. On February 18, 1965, a group of demonstrators were attacked by white segregationists in Marion, AL. As chaos ensued, an Alabama state trooper shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, one of the young, Black peaceful protestors. In response, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference planned a march from Selma to Montgomery for March 7, 1965.
That Sunday morning, a group of 600 people began their departure from Selma. Before exiting city limits, they were met by state and local police—some on horseback— at Edmund Pettus Bridge. When the marchers refused to disperse, the troopers beat and gassed the unarmed protestors with whips, nightsticks and tear gas. In the end, 17 marchers were hospitalized, 50 treated for lesser injuries and more are assumed to have been harmed who did not seek treatment.
With national attention, Dr. King asked for volunteers to join a future attempt to march in the coming weeks.
The Blockade: The Second Attempt
On March 9, more than 2,000 marchers—including hundreds of ministers, priests, rabbis and social activists from across the country—left Selma in the second attempt to Montgomery. After crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge, demonstrators were blocked again by state troopers. After leading the group in prayer, Dr. King decided to turn the marchers around.
That night, James Reeb—a white Unitarian Universalist minister—was attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan, dying two days later after succumbing to his injuries. Events unfolded quickly over the next ten days: Alabama’s governor and other state officials tried to prevent the march from moving forward; a U.S. district court judge ruled the legality of the march and the marchers’ right to safety; President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized Alabama’s National Guard; the President addressed the nation in support of the Selma protesters and called for a new voting rights bill.
Montgomery: The Third Attempt
Over 3,000 people marched out of Selma for Montgomery on March 21, 1965, protected by the U.S. Army and Alabama National Guard. By the time the protestors reached their destination, nearly 50,000 supporters gathered at the state capital building in Montgomery to hear Dr. King speak as viewers from around the world watched on their televisions.
In August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed the right to vote (first awarded by the 15th Amendment) to all Black Americans.
Asking Lesley Levin
Tell us about where you were in life during the march and what made you decide to get involved.
I was in high school. I was 18, I think, and I was in NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement). I was very active and was given the opportunity to go to the NFTY Leadership Institute, which normally was held in Warwick, NY, but that year it was being held in Cleveland, GA. So I was already headed to the South and it kind of just dovetailed with NFTY also sponsoring the march. I took a train from Indianapolis to Atlanta, and there was a bus in Atlanta that took us on to Selma. We marched as a group.
The 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery took place over 5 days. Were you present for the whole march, or just for part of it?
No, just towards the end. I can’t exactly remember when we joined the march—it was over 50 years ago, so I don’t remember exactly where I joined, but I do remember joining it. It was towards the end and I did end up with everyone in Montgomery, AL.
You were present when Dr. King gave his speech at the Montgomery capital building. What single moment of the march have you carried with you?
Unfortunately, a lot of what I remember is not pleasant. I was marching near a rabbi who actually got hit in the head with a club and he was bleeding. I remember the dogs barking. It was scary, and I don’t talk about it often because of that. I mean, I didn’t think I was making history. I just knew my Black friends and neighbors should be treated equally to me and this was my passion. I remember: from where I was, it was sort of hard to hear Martin Luther King the whole time, mainly because there was so much other noise going on. But that’s sort of my biggest memory.
That sounds like a lot—especially as an 18-year-old. Do you feel like you were a changed person after getting home from the march?
Definitely, definitely. I didn’t realize how much hostility there was about this. I thought it was the right thing to do. I didn’t realize there were so many people so against this.
How did your Jewish values inform your decision to join the march to Montgomery?
The value of b’tselem Elohim, the idea that we are all created in the image of God, has always been something that has directed my life. I became a social worker because of that.
I’ll tell you a quick story: when I was living in Cleveland after I got married, my husband and I were youth group advisors at a synagogue. They asked me to talk to the kids about my experience during the Civil Rights Era, and there was one question this one child asked me that sort of floored me: he looked at me and said, “I don’t understand why you did it. You’re not Black, so what difference does it make to you?” And that profound question really made me think about why I did it, and it really went back to this idea of b’tselem Elohim.
That is very profound. It’s both amazing and inspiring that at eighteen you had the courage to act upon how people need to be treated the same.
But that was the message I got in my household, that’s how my parents raised me and how they approached life. That everybody has value, and are equal and worthwhile. That was a big part of my upbringing. They were amazing parents.
Can you explain in your view how Jewish values and Black rights intersect?
I study something called Mussar. It’s about developing qualities within yourself based on Hebrew text, and this idea that I honor every single person I come in contact with. So honor is another big part where it intersects: Judaism, the Civil Rights Movement, Black rights; this concept that everybody deserves my honor, because again, b’tselem Elohim.
We learn from the teachings of our Rabbis through the ages the importance of caring for each other, the idea of “do unto your neighbor as you’d have them do unto you.” In Judaism, we switch it up a little bit differently to treating everyone the same way you’d like to be treated. And I take it one step further, because the way I’d like to be treated may not be the way you like to be treated; so I say that I treat people the way they would like to be treated, and I try to know from them how they would like to be treated.
Looking back on this significant event in American history as an adult, with your life and world experience, how would you say you view it now and if it informed who you are today?
It showed me I had power, that I could do something to try and fix what I felt was wrong. Another Jewish value is tikkun olam, to repair the world. I think that really started me on a path of, “I know I can have some effect on repairing the world.”
It sounds like joining the march solidified your viewpoints, beliefs and values, as opposed to the march being a transformative experience for you.
It solidified. There have been days in the last year where I have felt like, “Why did I do this because it didn’t have any lasting effect.” I feel like we’re right back where we started in some cases, and that—to me—has been disappointing.
Sigma Delta Tau is deeply committed to upholding the values of individuality, connection, community, engagement and empowerment. We call upon all members to heighten our levels of awareness on the topics of racism and discrimination, educate ourselves and others, interrogate systems of oppression, and act as allies to Black communities, communities of color and other marginalized groups.
To learn how to begin your journey in allyship, explore our Anti-Racist Resources Guide in our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion resources.