Blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, 15,000-strong, joined the largest civil rights march Saturday in Cumming, Georgia, since Martin Luther King, Jr. led the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama.
The march marked a reaffirmation of the Black-Jewish coalition for civil rights which blossomed in the 1960’s, according to Rabbi A. James Rudin, American Jewish Committee director of interreligious affairs, who was a featured speaker at the march.
Rudin called the march an awesome display by Americans asserting their right to march and demonstrate peacefully anywhere in this country.
Saturday’s march came exactly one week after the little town of Cumming, population 2,000, was the scene of a smaller but more violent march, brought to an abrupt and premature halt when Ku Klux Klansmen hurled bottles and rocks at an interracial brotherhood march.
Within a week, civil rights leaders, Jewish community leaders and Christian clergy organized a massive response to the violence. But the outpouring of support overwhelmed the organizers who did not expect the huge turnout, Rudin told the JTA Sunday after returning to New York.
A convoy of some 200 buses carried the marchers from their meeting point in Atlanta to the outskirts of Cumming in Forsyth County, north of Atlanta. But they were not the only ones demonstrating Saturday. Several hundred counter demonstrators, a handful of them Klansmen donning white sheets, awaited the demonstrators in Cumming behind a human wall of security forces.
RABBI DESCRIBES THE SCENE
Rudin described the scene as the buses neared Cumming.
“It was one of the only times in my life I feared for my physical survival. We saw the security forces on the roof with automatic weapons,” Rudin said. “Then I saw about 15 men in white sheets, some of them extending their right arms in a Nazi salute. The bus got very quiet, very tense. I had seen pictures of them. But it was the first time in my life I had ever seen the KKK in their white sheets, in broad daylight with the Confederate flags and the Nazi salutes.”
Rudin rode in a leadership bus, the second in the convoy, which also carried slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King. “We had been warned about snipers who might want to hit the leaders, especially Ms. King,” Rudin said.
After reaching the starting point of the march, Rudin and other leaders addressed the march in front of the country courthouse.
“Once again, our nation has seen the ugly face of racism and bigotry, this time in Forsyth County, Ga., but fear and intimidation will never stop Americans of good will from asserting their right to assemble peaceably,” Rudin told the marchers.
“I am proud to represent the American Jewish Committee in this historic march. Bigots and racists everywhere must learn that Americans who stand for justice and equality will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to eradicate racist hatred from our midst.”
SHOCKED BY RACIST SHOUTS AND SLOGANS
As the marchers moved through the streets of Cumming, the counter-demonstrators on the other side of the human security wall called out “Nigger loversâ€¦ go home Niggersâ€¦ Commie faggots.” Rudin said he was shocked to see one of them holding up a sign saying “James Earl Ray, American Hero.” James Earl Ray assassinated King. Another banner proclaimed, “Trade with South Africa — Our blacks for their whites.” Some of the counter-demonstrators tried to spit on the marchers.
Some of the marchers flashed the V sign for love and peace. Some sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Rabbi Alvin Sugarman of The Temple in Atlanta also addressed the march, and about 40 members of a Black-Jewish coalition from Atlanta participate.
1964 AND 1987 CONTRASTED
Rudin contrasted the Cumming march with Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1964, where he marched for voting rights. The civil rights movement has come a long way since then but is still fighting the battle. “We will do it again and again and again,” Rudin said.
The most dramatic difference between 1964 and 1987, according to Rudin, was the support and solidarity of the security forces. He noted that the combined forces of the FBI, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, National Guardsmen, and local police were clearly supportive of the peaceful demonstration.
“In Hattiesburg, I looked on the local police and the sheriff as ambivalent. Whose side were they on? Saturday there was no question that the whole state apparatus was on our side.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.