Though the song does have its detractors, when Glory won the award for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards last month, not many people were surprised.
When Legend and Common performed it during the award ceremony, they featured a replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge – a bridge iconic for the events which occurred there fifty years ago and which are brilliantly captured in the movie Selma, for which the song was created.
Fifty years ago yesterday, on March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led thousands across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march that spanned from Selma to Montgomery, AL. The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, would not provide protection for the marchers, so President Johnson sent in thousands of Army and National guard soldiers, FBI agents and federal marshals. On March 25, over 25,000 people entered Montgomery in a show of support for African-American citizens to be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote – a demonstration that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
The march was the culmination of events that started, really, before even the colonization of this country, but was brought to immediacy by the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson , in nearby Marion, AL. Jimmie Lee had been participating in a peaceful march for voting rights, when police attacked marchers. When his mother was being visciously beaten, he tried to get the state trooper to stop. Instead, the trooper shot Jackson in the stomach and began beating him in the head. Jackson’s death outraged the black community. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, came into town and gave the eulogy for him, and local organizers decided to funnel that outrage into action.
The successful march of 50 years ago was actually the third attempt. The first attempt occurred on March 7. John Lewis led the gathered crowd across the bridge where they were met by state troopers who attacked them brutally with clubs and tear gas. When I was on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage a few years ago, a poignant moment for me was being on the bridge and listening to a woman describe how the marchers were chased down by police on horses, riding even up church stairs miles away hunting people down. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.
Martin Luther King, Jr, assessed the situation, came to Selma, and put out a call for clergy to come. On the 9th, he led another march, but as they got to the line of state troopers, King stopped and prayed, and then turned the marchers around. This became known as “Turn around Tuesday.” That evening, three white Unitarian ministers were attacked and beaten on the street by white segregationists. The Rev. James Reeb died of head injuries two days later. Again, King delivered a powerful eulogy for Reeb at the memorial service.
Between March 9 and March 21, King worked hard to get protection from the federal government for the marchers. Reeb’s death had shocked the nation in a way that Jackson’s had not, and so eventually President Johnson relented and provided the protection, which allowed the march to finally be successful.
Two weeks ago, on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, an estimated 80,000 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama and his family were there, and he spoke at the event. “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday,” he said, “our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.”
There is a French proverb that says that the more things change, the more they remain the same. On the Friday before the commemorative march, Tony T. Robinson Jr., an unarmed 19-year-old black man was shot dead by a white police officer in Madison, Wisconsin, sparking protests.
Earlier this week, Martese Johnson, a black University of Virginia student, was bloodied during an arrest near the campus. Johnson’s attorney relates that “Just before handcuffing him, police took Martese to the ground, striking his head on the pavement and causing him to bleed profusely from the gash on his head. ” The lawyer continued by listing the numerous leadership positions on campus that Johnson holds, ending his statement with “He has no criminal record.”
“He has no criminal record.” His lawyer had to share this with us, because time after time, for each story heard of a black man brutalized by police, white people sit around and look for excuses. “Oh, he was drinking” or “Oh, he had a criminal record” or “Oh, he was a drug addict.” because, apparently, these character flaws somehow make it okay for someone to be the victim of police brutality?
We see this in the death of Otis Byrd this week in Mississippi. He was found hanging by a tree, a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. Some reports indicate that a skull cap was pulled over his head, and that there was nothing nearby for him to stand before taking a suicidal step forward. The FBI is investigating and should know more in the coming days whether this was a lynching or a suicide, but in the meantime every report the news has made has been sure to share that Byrd was convicted in 1980 of murdering a woman and had served almost 26 years in prison before his release. Because, I guess, if he was lynched, then this would make it less horrible???!!!
Kenny Wiley is the director of Religious Education at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church in Colorado, and a senior editor of the UU World magazine. Writing in response to Johnson’s experience earlier this week, Wiley wrote on his facebook wall:
Over time the illusions of black respectability I grew up believing–that if I was smart enough, nice enough, nonthreatening enough, that nothing could go wrong–has been shattered.
In general, that’s a good thing. I needed to wake up to the racial realities of the present. But I need to say publicly that all this violence hurts. It hurts to know that, if any violence ever happened to me, the first question some would ask is what I did to deserve it.
Listening to a podcast just yesterday, I heard a mother talking about how she is teaching her 5 year old son how to properly pronounce certain words because she wants people to know he is human. She wants people to know that he is human! I have never, ever, not once had to worry about whether my children would be considered human. And I am betting that neither have most of you. But mothers of black sons do. Constantly.
The black experience in the United States may be better than it was 50 years ago, but it is still an extreme experience. The recent Department of Justice report on the situation in Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown was killed in August, illustrates this numerically. With a population of only 21,000, 16,000 in people in Ferguson had outstanding arrest warrants. This means over ¾ of the population were wanted by police! Though African Americans represent only 66% of the population, police used force in their arrests much more often than in the case of other races. 85% of the people subject to a vehicle stop were African American, and 93% of all people arrested in Ferguson we African-American! Ferguson issued 9000 criminal arrest warrants, or one for every 2.3 citizens. For comparison purposes, Boston, with a population of over half a million, only issued 2,300 criminal arrest warrants, or one for every 280 citizens.
Now we can say that Ferguson is an anomoly, but with over 19,000 municipal governments in our country, “the chances that Ferguson happens to be the worst are extremely slim.”
We know that it is not just police brutality from which blacks disproportionately suffer:
- African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
- One in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.
- 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.
- African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as Next bullet whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months)!!
- Every 28 hours a black man, woman, or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement.
In The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, Michelle Alexander says:
If Martin Luther King Jr. is right that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, a new movement will arise; and if civil rights organizations fail to keep up with the times, they will be pushed to the side as another generation of advocates comes to the fore. Hopefully the new generation will be led by those who know best the brutality of the new caste system—a group with greater vision, courage, and determination than the old guard can muster, trapped as they may be in an outdated paradigm.
Enter the Black Lives Matter movement. Thanks to social media, particularly Twitter, racially unjust events are being dragged from the shadows into the light of public scrutiny. Originally started as a twitter hashtag, the Black Lives Matter movement “was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime… Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist [their] de-humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”
Today, Black Lives Matter is an organized movement “working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” They ask those of us who are non-black to stand with them in solidarity.
I know some of you have trouble with Black Lives Matter. To you, I gently, but firmly remind you: This is not your movement. As white people, we are being asked to be allies to a powerful claiming of black humanness. We are not being asked to lead. We are not being asked to weigh in. We are being asked to listen, to show up, to walk, to stand shoulder to shoulder, and to speak out against injustice when we encounter it.
Because, in this country, we have proven time and time again that black lives don’t matter as much as white lives. Because Jimme Lee Jackson’s death was not enough to bring the world to Selma, but James Reeb’s was.
And so we protest against those who act like Trayvon Martin’s life didn’t matter because he was wearing a hoodie and “acting suspicious”,
We protest against those who act like Michael Brown’s life didn’t matter because he did not obey the police officer or because, heaven forbid, he was walking down the middle of a street,
We protest against those who act like Tamir Rice’s life didn’t matter because he shouldn’t have been playing with a toy in a playground (??!!)
We protest against those who act like a black life only matters if they have never committed a crime, speak well, are educated, and whatever other new bar gets set that denies their inherent worth and dignity.
We protest against all those who act like black lives don’t matter. We say no: All lives matter, and because of this, black lives matter, too. We make it explicit, so that there can be no confusion.
In 1963, Martin Luther King sat in the Birmingham, Alabama jail and wrote a famous letter. He was not allowed pieces of paper, so we wrote it on scraps, on whatever he could find. A part of that letter reads:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
As white people, if we sit still and nitpick the name of perhaps the most important movement in our country right now, or, even worse, if we counter it by saying we should instead hang a banner that says “All lives matter” we become the white moderate over whom King lamented. We effectively would be paternalistically saying “We know better than you what you should name yourself.” We would be acting as white supremacists.
As white people, if we are not stepping up in white society to challenge racism and racial prejudice when we see it, we are, by defacto, agreeing with the status quo rather than challenging it and are aligning ourselves with white supremacists.
As white people, if we are waiting for Black people to tell us it is okay or to give us clear instructions, “The reality is, Black people have been calling on whites to step up for decades.” As Unitarian Universalist author of Towards Collective Liberation and recent White Privilege Conference speaker Chris Crass wrote recently on his facebook page: “In all my years of working alongside Black organizers and activists, I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘we’ve got too many white people fighting racism’.”
This is why we have our new Black Lives Matter candle at First Unitarian Church. This is why we are talking about replacing our “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right” banner with a #BlackLivesMatter banner when the Supreme Court hopefully legalizes same-sex marriage this summer: Because it is, and will be, a symbol of our humility. Of our willingness to listen. Of our willingness to follow. Of our willingness to stand in solidarity. Of our willingness to speak out, and lend our bodies to the cause of justice.
Much has changed in fifty years, though much has remained the same.
In his concluding remarks two weeks ago at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama reminded us that what happened fifty years ago proved “that love and hope can conquer hate…that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals…We know the march is not yet over,” he said, “We know the race is not yet won. We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth…Fifty years…our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.”
Hard fought inch by hard fought inch, we are getting closer. It isn’t easy. It isn’t pretty. In fact it is pretty messy. We will fall short in this work. We will fail at times. And we will break each others hearts over and over again. But we know that if we remain in the struggle, this is what enables us to grow. May we not have to wait another 50 years to get to the glory.