Black lives mattered to Rabbi Robert J. Schur, who spoke from the pulpit at Beth-El Congregation in soft, prophetic cadences. Following Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, the day Alabama state troopers tear-gassed and pummeled civil rights demonstrators crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the rabbi reached out to his Black pastoral colleagues.
They were planning a mass meeting the next Sunday, March 14, featuring a keynote address from Atlanta’s Rev. C.T. Vivian, a confidante of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rabbi Schur agreed to speak, too. The flier publicizing the rally listed his name first among local clergy.
Never before had Blacks and whites protested together in Fort Worth, a city where schools, pools, and parks had token integration. Throughout the week, demonstrators lettered handmade signs that declared “End Police Brutality,” “Stop Voter Suppression” and “Kill Jim Crow, Not Citizens”— demands still salient 56 years later. The Rev. Marshall E. Hodge, chapter president of Fort Worth’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and founder of Morningside AME Church, had just returned from Selma where, he told the Star-Telegram, “Frankly, I was scared to death.”
Tensions mounted mid-week when the Fort Worth SCLC filed for a parade permit. At a Friday press conference, Deputy Police Chief R.R. Howerton announced that 50 officers — on foot and in motorcycles, in uniform and plainclothes — would patrol the milelong parade. The route would extend from the City Recreation Center, now a National Historic Landmark, at 215 W. Vickery Blvd. to City Hall at 1000 Throckmorton St.
Rabbi Schur, a Cincinnati native previously on the pulpit in Alexandria, La., had come to Fort Worth in 1956. From the start, he was outspoken about racial injustice. In 1963, when a coalition of Southern synagogues sought his help rescinding an invitation for MLK to address a national meeting of Reform Jewish leaders, he had refused. His synagogue’s board of directors, headed by Beth-El president E.M. (Manny) Rosenthal, backed him with “a vote of confidence . . . regarding the integration question.”
Rabbi Schur had visited with MLK once. While catching a plane in the Atlanta airport, he had recognized MLK getting his shoes polished at a shoeshine stand. The rabbi introduced himself, and the two clergymen dialogued about Plato, the Greek philosopher who analyzed ethics and harmony in society. The rabbi had preached about historic parallels between Blacks and Jews, from bondage in ancient Egypt to bigotry in modern times.
Swept up in the rabbi’s idealism, teens at Beth-El’s Temple Youth Group were eager to join him at the rally. “Civil rights was the dominant issue of the day,” recalled the rabbi’s son Bill Schur, a retired attorney, then a junior at Paschal High. “This was our first real opportunity to do more than just talk about it.”
Until that month, the synagogue youth group’s social activism had consisted of trick-or-treating for UNICEF, visiting the Denton State School for developmentally disabled children, meeting at an African American church, dialoguing with a Black guest speaker, and talking about the need for change. “Our projects seemed pedestrian and safe,” recalled Dallas writer Bill Simon, a high school classmate of Bill Schur.
The week leading up to the march, some parents from Beth-El had phoned one another, fearful that violence would erupt. A Star-Telegram headline warned: “Bomb Threat Anticipated.”
When Sunday arrived, the rabbi’s son attended the rally with Simon and another friend from Beth-El, Dale Bronstein, also a Paschal student. They recognized in the crowd two other Jewish teens — sisters Miriam and Rebecca Winesanker who stood with their parents, Esther and Dr. Michael Winesanker, a professor at Texas Christian University, which had never enrolled a full-time undergraduate Black student.
Following 45-minutes of sermons, prayers, and gospel singing, a crowd of 600 people filed out, four abreast, with Rabbi Schur and Rev. Hodge, in the lead. Four out of five demonstrators were Black.
“I remember the day being bright and pleasant,” said Bronstein, a wine importer who grew up stocking shelves in his family’s grocery store alongside Black employees and playing with African American youngsters. “I remember being outside of City Hall and that the route to it was quiet.”
Silence added to the tension.
“When the march passed St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, several priests and nuns stepped forward to march the rest of the way,” according to the TCU Skiff. By the time demonstrators reached City Hall, their numbers had swollen to 700 people who sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Ministers of multiple Christian denominations stepped to the podium. Many proclaimed their motivation stemmed from the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“When Rabbi Schur took his turn to speak,” Simon recalled, “he began with absolute, prolonged quiet. He understood the power of silence to attract listener attention and focus. His first sentence made an unforgettable impression: ‘I come from a different tradition.’ ”
(Hollace Ava Weiner, author of Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and Their Work, is director of the Fort Worth Jewish Archives.)