By Emma Pulley
On Tuesday June 18th, a crowd gathered inside the parking lot of the Hilton Bayfront Historic Inn in St. Augustine, Florida. Standing in the warm, Florida breeze they looked on as Lee Weaver, board member of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society, presided over the plaque dedication honoring the 16 Rabbis who were arrested in St. Augustine in 1964. Those present came to honor the brave men who stood in solidarity with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his efforts to further the work of the Civil Rights Movement in the idyllic coastal town.
“But our event, celebrating The Sixteen, was to me almost a Holy Work. It spoke much more clearly of the sacrifice, the investment, the heroism and the dedication of The Sixteen,” remarked Weaver, the event’s stellar emcee and volunteer for SAJHS.
The sacrifice, investment, heroism and dedication that Weaver to aptly refers to describes what is thought to be the largest mass arrest of Rabbis in United States history – a story not well-known outside of the storied gates of St. Augustine.
“Certainly most Americans know who Dr. King was, but few could tell you that rabbis walked beside him on most of his marches for civil rights throughout the '60s,” said Greg Arnold, community member and attendee that day.
It’s hard to imagine a place that has been consistently voted among the top small town vacation destinations as a place that once suffered from extreme racial tension and violence. But in 1964, Dr. King telegraphed his close friend Rabbi Israel Dresner, asking him to send a delegation south to St. Augustine to aid with local peaceful protesting efforts. The request came during the 75th annual gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and a group of representatives was quickly arranged. Not long after their arrival, all 16 were arrested for their participation in the protests.
“Much of what we, the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society, is in the realm of encouragement to remember. Only by understanding our past can we gain our bearings and set our compasses to take us into the future,” said Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, president of the Saint Augustine Jewish Historical Society. Through the efforts of Rabbi Shapiro and many others, there will now be a permanent marker of history at the Hilton – encouraging all who pass by or seek it out to reflect on the heroism of men who answered the call and came to stand with their brothers and sister in the cause.
After the outdoor plaque dedication, attendees moved inside to hear a reading of “Why We Went,” a joint letter from the 16 Rabbis crafted from their jail cell in St. Johns County and a poignant treatise of love, justice and civic duty.
But perhaps the most moving portion of the day was a message written by Rabbi Hanan Sills, one of the original 16 Rabbis who is still living. Though unable to travel himself, he sent his friend and caregiver Stacy Heath in his stead with some inspiring words: “We were simply doing what was right, but I also know that it was meaningful to put our necks on the line. We aimed to strengthen and legitimize the civil rights struggle as allies, and we wanted to show that we cared with more than just words. I don’t think we should underestimate what that physical solidarity can mean for those we stand up for and with.”
After the program, Stacy generously shared her perspective on the day’s event: “I was born in November 1965 so I wasn't even conceived when the Rabbi's and so many others before them risked their lives so my family and I could have rights today. The commemoration of the ceremony opened up the gratefulness and gratitude in me that I had never thought or felt before so as I said to Rabbi Sills, who told me I was his surrogate daughter, it was an honor to be able to go in his stead and share his statement.”
We live in a world full of potential, but also one that still requires us to be vigilant and dedicated. Through cherishing and honoring our past, we make the commitment not only to the present, but to the future. Greg Arnold and his wife Barbara perfectly summed up their commitment to remembering: “To remind people that justice is something that Jews have always believed in and strived for, and to remind today's Jews that the quest for justice, peace and tikkun olam is not an armchair activity. It takes courage, dedication and action.”
Below is a copy of the full letter written by Rabbi Hanan Sills, generously shared with us by Rabbi Sills and his family. Todah Raba to Rabbi Sills, his family, and Stacy Heath for bringing his inspiring message of love and hope to the city of St. Augustine.
Greetings esteemed guests. My name is Stacy Heath, and I am honored to be here in front of you today to represent Rabbi Hanan Sills and to read his statement. I am Hanan’s caregiver and friend, and he has asked me to stand in for him today to honor one of the most significant moments in his entire life. Hanan could not be here today because of his struggles with Alzheimer’s disease and other health concerns. However, his family and I were able to put the following statement together that expresses his sentiments. It is inspired by recent conversations with Hanan as well as past recordings of him recounting the event. On behalf of Hanan, I would like to thank you for this honor and for commemorating the civil rights protests that occurred here in 1964.
“At 84 years old, I now struggle with significant memory loss, but some things I will never forget. I become overwhelmed with sorrow when I think about how people are still being mistreated today, especially African Americans in this country. It shocks me every time I think about it, and I have to stop to make space for tears and to yell out loud so that my feelings have someplace to go.
In 1964, I was attending a Rabbinical convention in Atlantic City. At the end of my first day, Rabbi Israel Dresner waved a telegram in the air and called us to action. He said that Dr. Martin Luther King asked for us to come and join a protest in St. Augustine. He said that we have to do something because people are still being lynched. Immediately, what came to my mind was the Holocaust, and I knew I had to help. When the larger meeting broke up, a few of us, mostly young Rabbi’s, met with one of our mentors and teachers, Rabbi Borowitz. We talked long into the night and made our plans to attend. We faced resistance from several Rabbis at the conference who had congregations in the south. They asked us not to go and stir things up and then leave town. They feared that their congregations would face the consequences of the backlash. My wife at the time also didn’t want me to go because we had two small children at home. She had a real fear that I might not make it back alive. But how could I not go? She eventually came to support my decision, but we were both truly afraid of what it could mean for us.
Ultimately, only 17 of us Rabbis went to St. Augustine to support the march for civil rights. It was a scary time. From the moment we arrived at the airport in Florida, we were followed and harassed by members of the Klu Klux Klan. The local chief of police was also a member of the Klan so we knew that we would not have protection. They were yelling and taunting us. Calling us N*!# lovers. It still makes me want to scream when I think about their cruelty. I had heard stories of what was transpiring before I arrived, so I knew the threats were real and that my life was in danger.
When I went to protest with the other Rabbis and Dr. King, I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that our action would fix the deep-rooted problems of racism and hatred. I did not honestly know what the impact would be, but being there as an act of faith in humanity. I know we made a difference, but I also know that issues of racism are still prevalent today, and many of us are still protesting so that people of all nationalities and identities can have basic rights and dignity. |
People have said nice things to me about what it meant to them that I took a stance. The compliments are sincere, and I appreciate the gratitude, but the truth is I am just a regular human being, and “just” being human actually means a lot, it’s not something small at all. I was not acting as a hero because the heroes were the ones that had to stay and live there. That which is exceptional can be found within the ordinary. Standing up for each other as brothers and sisters and simply leading with our humanity is really everything.
I also feel proud of my participation in the civil rights movement because for once I did the right thing. Yes I can get caught in the ego trap but the truth is I was scared to death the whole time. Sometimes people don’t realize that. After the fact, people want to project a false confidence or savior image on the Rabbis who participated in the civil rights movement, but that is false and can be harmful. It separates acts of justice into a category of heroism. That way of understanding history does not acknowledge that each one of us has the potential in our lifetime to be courageous when we are asked to do the right thing.
When 17 of us Rabbis showed up in response to Dr. Martin Luther King’s request, the community was excited to see us there. Dr. King asked us to walk on the outside of the group and to physically block police and Ku Klux Klan members from brutally targeting African American women during the marches. He knew that they would be less likely to attack clergy. We were simply doing what was right, but I also know that it was meaningful to put our necks on the line. We aimed to strengthen and legitimize the civil rights struggle as allies, and we wanted to show that we cared with more than just words. I don’t think we should underestimate what that physical solidarity can mean for those we stand up for and with.
When we were arrested, one of the powerful images that stand in my mind is that of 17 Rabbis crammed into a jail cell that was meant for 6 people in over 100 degree weather. We had to strip down to our underwear, and we “davened” or prayed together in our undergarments. We used our prayers to lift us up in yet another form of resistance. Sadly, a local Rabbi came to the jail and berated us from outside of our cell for our participation out of his own fear of backlash.
After the action, when I returned home to Milwaukee, the windows of my home and synagogue had been broken, and my car had been shot at. I also recieved death threats and my children were named in the threats. Although this was terrifying, I did not regret my decision to be a part of the movement for justice, and I am so appreciative that Dr. King reached out to us. The sorrow I still feel about his death is tremendous, and it completely overwhelms me. He meant so much to me and to so many of us, and I still can't believe they murdered him. It feels like yesterday.
After the action, when I returned home to Milwaukee, the windows of my home and synagogue had been broken, and my car had been shot at. I also received death threats and my children were named in the threats. Although this was terrifying, I did not regret my decision to be a part of the movement for justice, and I am so appreciative that Dr. King reached out to us. The sorrow I still feel about his death is tremendous, and it completely overwhelms me. He meant so much to me and to so many of us, and I still can’t believe they murdered him. It feels like yesterday.
I have been asked what it takes to push through our own fear and limitations when called to take action. I think we have to look past the moment and reach for an even bigger fear of the kind of world we will create if we remain inactive. People who stay on the sidelines try to bury their heads in the sand because It is easier not to face pain. If we want to make the world better, we have to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. In a position of relative privilege, I can choose to protect my own self or my immediate family at the expense of my extended family. But if I let my deeper emotions lead and allow myself to feel the pain of injustice, I am moved past self-preservation.
As a young man, I was threatened and ganged up on for being Jewish, and I know what it is like to fear for my own survival and well-being because of someone else’s hatred and cruelty. I have had the experience of being completely alone and scared and having to flee from imminent danger with nobody to aid me. No one should ever have to face that kind of fear all alone because of their skin color, religion, sexual orientation or any other aspect of their identity.
Our liberation is tied together. African Americans are still treated unfairly in this country today. It is the truth, and it makes me so deeply angry and sad. We have to stand up against that injustice together. We have to be brave and honest, and we must put our lives on the line for each other. In my lifetime I have learned that our oppressions are all linked, and it is short-sighted to turn away from our neighbor’s persecution. Jews and really anyone who has experienced a history of persecution and “othering” can draw on our own experiences of pain to connect and empathize with those around us who fear for their lives even today. If we want to make real change in the world, we cannot shy away from feeling deeply and grieving with each other.”
Thank you again for your time and the honor of sharing these words.
Tzedek Tzedek “Justice Justice” Tirdof “We Shall Pursue”