Monday, January 16, 2017

Freedom Caps

While an internet search can bring up many different statistics about the number of Jews involved in the civil rights movement, it is fair to say that it was a significant percentage when compared to the actual percentage of Jews in the national population.

At the grass roots level, young activist Jews joined the fight by riding buses south and volunteering to register black voters. Not only was there a lot to do, but it had to be done under threatening and dangerous conditions. As part of the civil rights legal team, there was a disproportionate number of newly graduated Jewish lawyers, many of whom had probably faced prejudice and persecution of their own.

Few people realize that among the many Jews participating in these historic marches there was quite a significant number of rabbis. Some, like Abraham Joshua Heshel, were well-known leaders, but most were passionate pulpit rabbis from every denomination.

One small but fascinating outcome of the rabbis participation in the civil rights marches was the "freedom cap." Although in the 1960s it was most common for rabbis in the Reform movement not to wear yarmulkes (kippa/skullcaps), almost all of them did so as a statement of identity during the March. According to several news reports, many of the other marchers chose to also wear them. In fact, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, "The demand for yarmulkes was so great that an order has been wired for delivery of 1,000 when the marchers arrive in Montgomery later this week..." (March 22, 1965). The marchers referred to their special caps as "freedom caps."

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