Tag Archives: Racial Justice

Lift ANY voice and sing…please!!

27 Aug

Along with several folks from my congregation, I attended the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington this past weekend. It was a weekend that had some inspirational moments, some challenging moments, some peaceful moments. But in the entire experience, one thing was strikingly missing: song.

Group singing was an important part of the Civil Rights Movement of 50 years ago. It united people, strengthened their courage and resolve, inspired them. Martin Luther King said ‘‘The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle…They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.

Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “I’m On My Way” turned a mass of individuals into a united force – a nonviolent force to be reckoned with. They conveyed meaning and helped people stand strong against violence. They provided a sound-track that brought forth emotion, united it in shared purpose, and directed it outward.

So I was expecting lots of singing this weekend: on the bus, in-between speakers, along the march route. I was ready to lose my voice – looking forward to it even. However, during the 40+ hours I was gone, there was only one song that I heard started (during the march) and it was barely picked up by surrounding participants. The few times I tried to start something, I was met with silence. Why was there virtually no singing? I wondered. As I have had a chance to reflect, three possibilities come to mind.

First, the program of the rally did not seem to pay attention to the flow of energy of those in attendance. It went from one speaker, to another, to another.  There were no breaks to reflect or process what the previous speaker had just said. Perhaps the organizers were so concerned about getting more speakers into the time that they felt they had to remove any singing. (Disclaimer: I arrived at the Lincoln Memorial at 10:30 – there might have been some singing before then that I am unaware of).   So singing was not built-into the program of the rally.  But lack of attention from the rally leadership would not prohibit singing during the march.

That leads to a second possibility: social media. Along the march route, I saw thousands of us raising our cell-phones to take pictures and video of the march itself. It must have been endlessly facebooked, tweeted, instagramed and more. On the one hand, social media has been used to connect people to make big things happen – like the Arab Spring. On the other hand, when I am documenting an event in social media, I remove myself from being present in the event. Perhaps with more documenters than participants, there was not a lot of energy to unite in song.

Third, I think the diversity of the march may have been a factor.  Bear with me as I parse this out.  I don’t have the data to back this up, but it felt like there were a lot more white people at this march than there probably had been in 1963.  Which, in many ways, is great!  But where does one learn to sing and learn the power of song?  Church.  And fewer and fewer white people (particularly liberal white people) are going to church, whereas black church attendance remains high.  The increase in unchurched white participation may have been a factor – group singing is not a common language anymore.

As I said above, there were some inspirational moments, challenging moments, and peaceful moments. What there were not were transcendent moments – those moments that come when I feel I am a part of something much vaster, much more powerful than myself. Group singing can facilitate such moments, and its absence at the 50th Anniversary March was felt.

Why I’m going to the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

20 Aug

My 12 year old daughter and I will be joining the Kentucky Mobilization to attend the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington this weekend.   Some folks have asked why I am going.  Besides the answer of “I wasn’t alive 50 years ago to attend the first one!” here are the top 10 reasons you could not keep me away:

1. Because at my kids’ schools, there are very few African American kids in the advanced program (GT) which speaks to many, many interconnecting issues – not one of which is actually related to how intelligent a child is.

2. Because many white people didn’t understand why African Americans were so devastated by what happened to Trayvon Martin.

3.  Because I don’t have to have a talk with kids about how to behave when pulled over, or tell them that they should let someone else stand up for them if they are unjustly accused by someone in authority…and no one else should have to have these talks either.

4. Because “more black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system [now] than there were enslaved in 1850.”  1 in 3 black men have been or will be incarcerated, the vast majority for nonviolent drug offenses, taking them away from family and also disenfranchising them.  They can’t get jobs to support their families, they can’t work – this is a new jim crow.

5. Because more chemical companies and power plants are put into poor communities and communities primarily made up of people of color.

6. Because “legacy” rules like this one at the Fire Department New York and at colleges all over the country continue to give preference to white students whose white parents were involved in the institution even if they are not as capable. Remember, many of these institutions were explicitly racist at some point and did not allow people of color, so continuing the “legacy” program perpetuates a system of racism.

7. Because African Americans receive poorer health care than white americans.

8.  Because a black woman won’t get hired as quickly as a white woman and many employers still discriminate based solely on a person’s name.

9.  Because as soon as the Voting Rights Act was repealed by SCOTUS, states like TX moved to put in discriminatory voting laws.

10. Because MLK’s Dream has not yet been realized and because I want to be part of the solution.

the journey continues.

26 Oct

The Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage officially ended almost two weeks ago, on October 13. I still have one or two blog entries I want to write about the journey and my experience/reflections. But something happened that I just can’t help but connect as another step in this journey.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day talking about Mountain Top Removal and the Coal Cycle with Unitarian Universalist ministers, dignitaries, and representatives from Louisville and KY organizations that tie into the cycle. All this in an effort to prepare for our General Assembly, which will bring 4000 or so Unitarian Universalists to Lousiville in June 2013. It was a day full of stimulating conversation and ideas and connections.

And then, as luck would have it, I ended up at an event that I had not even known about one week ago: Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light brought the Rev. Gerald Durley to come and speak about “Race, Faith and Climate Change: Why Global Warming is a Civil Rights Issue.”

Rev. Durley is Baptist Minister from Atlanta, Georgia. He shared his story about he converted to environmentalism less than a decade ago and he connected it directly to his work and experience as a young man in the Civil Rights movement.

As Rev. Durley spoke about names and places and events that helped to form his worldview during his young adult years, I realized that a month ago, most of the names and places would have meant almost nothing to me. I would have not understood his story the way I do now, after having been there and listened to the stories of other people who lived through that important time in history.

He continued to speak about how he had not been concerned with the environment through most of his adulthood and ministry, because the people in his congregation had other worries on their minds: home forclosures, getting food stamps, raising children in an increasingly violent world, and so much more.

The pivotal point for him was when he realized that he will not be around to minister to his people if he dies from cancer caused by environmental factors, and his people will not be alive  if they die earlier than the majority of the population (because enviornmental crises hits the poor, first and hardest).

He realized at the hospital, at the side of one of his congregants who struggle with asthma caused by environmental factors, that he can work for access to medical care all day long but until he addresses the root causes of the medical issues, he is applying a bandaid to a gaping wound and it is simply not sufficient.

He talked about the importance of putting a human face on the climate change issue: that it cannot be just about polar bears and honey bees, because human beings are being adversely affected right now by our poor relationship with the environment. And he talked about how important it is that there be legislation that addresses the issues, much like there needed to be legislation to address accomodations and voting rights.

The connection was so powerful to me. I had been wondering what “the” Civil Rights issue of this time might be, among so many unjust, oppressive wrongs that need to be righted. Durley connected the dots for me.

And, if I needed any further convincing, a friend came up to me afterwards and talked about when he was arrested in Washington, DC, protesting the Tar Sands Pipeline. He shared that as he was being handcuffed and placed in the paddy wagon, he felt more powerful than he ever had in his life.  Because they had spent time learning how to protest, immersing themselves in the cause and in the action.  And I would imagine (though I don’t know for sure) probably singing and building community. He felt powerful because he knew he was a part of a just cause. Because he knew he was part of something bigger than himself.

Thank you, mysterious universe, for connecting the dots for me and for helping me understand how the journey continues.

some amazing women.

12 Oct

Today is day 7 of the UU Living Legacy Pilgrimage. And today, I am thinking about the women of the civil rights movement, and the various roles women played.

I would guess that Rosa Parks is the first woman most people think of when they think of women in the civil rights movement. Her courageous seated protest on the Montgomery bus inspired much that came after.

And maybe then some of us think about the wives of leaders of the movement: Corretta Scott King, and Myrlie Evers are the first two who come to mind for me. These women raised their children amidst such stressful conditions. I can only imagine the fortitude they must have had to try to create a good, safe life for their kids and spouses in such tumultuous and dangerous times. And then to carry on after their spouses were asassinated.

My mind also goes to Viola Liuzzo, the white woman who was murdered transporting two black men back to Selma after the Selma to Montgomery March. And to the many women who were students, who made their voices heard by putting their bodies in the struggle. And musicians and artists like Joan Baez.

But today, I am thinking about 2 women in particular who probably never wanted or expected to be a part of history. And yet, without their leadership, the Movement would not have been the same. Two women whom I had never heard of before this trip.

The first is Mamie Till. She was Emmett Till’s mother. In 1955, Emmett was 14 years old when he came to Mississippi from Chicago for summer vacation. Though he had been warned about how to behave around white folks, when he was dared by his buddies to speak to a white woman shopkeeper at a road-side store, he did. Three days later, the shopkeeper’s husband and some friends abducted Emmett from his bed, beat him, shot him in the head, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Mrs. Till had Emmett’s body sent home to her in Chicago. She had an open casket, so that people could see what had been done to her beloved son. The picture of Emmett’s bruised and swollen face appeared in magazines and newspapers all around the country.

The men who abducted and killed Emmett were arrested and tried. An all-white jury took about an hour to come back with a not-guilty verdict (though later the men confessed to Look magazine!). It was 100 days after the verdict that Rosa Parks decided she was tired – not physically tired, like they taught me in school – she was bone weary of being denied her humanity.

Mrs. Till’s bravery awes me. Her conviction, her refusal to give in to fear. Her resistance to the status quo. In her grief, she made a decision that would rock the country and set into motion a movement towards freedom and equality.

The second woman that I am thinking about is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. She is my new hero. If someone asked me who I would most like to have 1 hour to talk to, I would choose Mrs. Hamer.

In 1962, she was around 45 years old, working on a cotton farm. She and her husband were sharecroppers, she had hardly any education. Someone from SNCC came and spoke at a mass meeting, and she attended. When the speaker asked if anyone would be interested in learning more and going to register to vote, she raised her hand.

When the farmer who owned the farm found out, he told her she had to go take her name off the roles (even though she had not been successful at registering). She said “I didn’t go to register for you, I went to register for me.” He fired both her and her husband. Little did he know his actions would create an activist.

In 1963, Mrs. Hamer became a field secretary for SNCC. She was articulate, full of conviction, and difficult to ignore. She was known for leading gatherings in singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

In 1964, she was selected as a delegate of the newly started Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and she was sent to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. There, she tried to make the case that the MFDP delegates were the only democratically selected delegates from the state. She told her story of being denied the right to register, the beating and torture she was forced to endure when pulled over for a traffic violation, and much more to a captivated audience. President Johnson interrupted the broadcast to try to limit the damage her story might do to his campaign.

After the convention, she continued to have leadership roles in the Movement in the Mississippi Delta. A statue in her honor is the only such civil rights memorial in the delta.

In two years, Mrs. Hamer went from raising her hand to speaking to a nation. Sometimes we wonder what we can do to work for justice. Her story teaches us that we must always be ready to raise our hands, and to let our light shine brightly.

Mrs. Mamie Till and Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, thank you for your bravery, for your courageous opening of your arms to embrace justice, for your sacrifice. Your conviction and courage inspire me.

what can emerge when we come together.

11 Oct

Today was day 6 of the UU Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage. And boy, at this point I can barely remember what day it was and which towns we visited. Living out of a suitcase has gotten old. I am a bus-riding expert. I long for my family, my bed, my routine. And I hate all these unsolved (or long delayed) cases of murder or assassination (We visited the Medgar Evers House Museum today…more on that in another post I suspect. I will leave it that he was an amazing man whom most of us should know a lot more about.)

And yet, even amidst my first-world struggles, there are these amazing bright spots: Hollis Watkins at COFO in Jackson, and then hearing Ed King share some of his amazing story. And of course, there was what we did this morning: we went to visit Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Philadelphia, MS. And there, we met some amazing folks.

Mt. Zion was the church that had burned down and that the three activists (Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman) had gone to check on when they were arrested, detained, released and then murdered. Their bodies were not found for six weeks: the white folks in town closed ranks around their own, and the ones who would have spoken out were afraid of repurcussions from the Klan. It was 40 years before some one was brought to trial for the murders.

We heard about the night of the church burning from Jewel Rush McDonald. She was getting married later in the year, so the night the church burned (and that Klan members were pulling people from their cars and beating them up) she packed up all her worldly possessions into a box, sealed it up, and put it in the chicken coop. If they burned the house, she figured she could run. She didn’t want to lose her clothes. It was a sad story, on top of an already tragic one.

And then Leroy Clemens started talking. He was just a young child, so he doesn’t remember much. He does remember that he never heard about the activists until he was in middle school. Long story short, he grew to realize that for the town to heal, they need to talk. Thus, in 2004, the Philadelphia Coalition was born, which brought white and black folks, along with Choctaw folks who also live in the area, to the same table to tell stories.

People heard stories that they never would have heard otherwise. They talked about why they love Philadelphia. About what they think the towns strengths, and struggles, are. Leroy said they didn’t set out to bring a murderer to justice, but the more they talked and shared, and brought these things out into the light that had been hidden away, they more they realized they needed to do something. And so together, black, white and Choctaw, wrote the state and asked for justice. And one of the murderers was arrested, tried and found guilty.

But here is the really neat thing about an already wonderful story: It didn’t stop there. Leroy told us that they worked with the state so that all Mississippi schools now require a Civil Rights component be taught, and that a part of that curriculum (which goes beyond Rosa Parks and MLK) is to focus on the particular history in the town/region.

And there is more. So much more.

Their website says:

Neshoba County discovered that the cancer of racism infects each person it touches. Although the ravages of the illness found a face in this community, racism is also a part of the breadth and depth of American history and culture. The cure for this epidemic is found only in the hearts of individuals. Today, Neshoba County has begun to heal. The sacrifices of the lives of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner helped ensure a better future for Neshoba County, Mississippi, and the nation.

Out of tragedy can come the most amazing things. It is that hope, that faith, that drove those in the Movement. It is that hope and faith that drives so many of us to continue to work for the beloved community, with peace, liberty and justice for all.

how things circle back…

10 Oct

This morning started with a trip to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL. This powerful monument, created by Maya Lin (creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC), has the names of 40 people (black and white) who were killed from 1955 to 1968 in the South in civil rights related murders.

While we were there, Morris Dees came and spoke to us about the important work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the different efforts they are focusing on right now. One that he mentioned was the school-to-prison-pipeline. Remember that, because I will come back to it.

Three of the names on the Memorial are James Chaney, a black Meridian, MI native, Mickey Schwerner, a white CORE field secretary, and Andrew Goodman, a white college student participating in Freedom Summer. On June 20, 1964, these three young men were murdered by the Klan in Meridian, Mississippi. Their bodies were placed in an earthen dam (and when the river was dragged and their bodies found, 9 more bodies were also found) and not found for 6 weeks.

The white people in town closed ranks on their own and so no justice was found for many, many years. Even now, not all those who are suspected to have participated have been tried. The tragic story is the subject of a documentary: Neshoba, which we watched in the bus on the way up to Meridian.

Later in the day, we stopped at James Chaney’s gravesite. The tombstone is secured with reinforced steel and is still regularly vandalized.

James Chaney left behind a daughter, less than 2 weeks old, whom he had not yet seen. Angela met us at his gravesite to talk about her father and her own life. Her mother did not tell her about her father until Angela was in junior high. It was quite a revalation.

Angela takes after her father: she tries to help people. She is in a caring profession. Her husband is a police officer. She has a large, loving family.

One of the issues that her husband has been involved in is the school-to-prison-pipeline. He saw it happening at Meridian: students who committed even slight offenses were being arrested and sent to jail. Yes, you read that right: students, juveniles, were being arrested, taken from school, and put in jail. And mistreated. For offenses like uniform infractions, or cursing.

You can read more about it here.

Angela’s husband saw that it was primarily black students who he got called to take to jail. He complained to the school principals, and even to the school superintendent. He was ignored. Now the Department of Justice is on the case.

Angela takes comfort in a song she learned growing up: “If I can help someone in my travels, then my living will not have been in vain.” She tries to live by that herself, and her husband does. And her father did.

But don’t be tempted to think the work is over. It is far from done, as Meridian continues to teach us.

a role for everyone

9 Oct

Today, I walked through the parsonage that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family lived in when he was the minister of Dexter Baptist Church here in Montgomery, AL. The tour guide knew her stuff, and at the end of the tour through the house (which included the table at which the SCLC was formed), we got to the kitchen. She kept the lights off, and told us the story of MLK’s kitchen table epiphany. He had been struggling, and gotten home late. Everyone was asleep. The phone rang and it was someone telling him his house was going to be bombed. He definitely couldn’t sleep after that (who could?) so he went and sat at the kitchen table. And he prayed. And in his prayers, he heard a voice, and it comforted him, and took away all his fears. He knew he was on the right path.

Every movement needs a leader. Martin Luther King, Jr. became that leader. He may or may not have chosen it. He may or may not have wanted it. But he became the leader, which was a very heavy burden.

Thankfully, he was not alone. He had many friends and trusted advisors to support him, as all good leaders need. He had his family to help ground him, and to help motivate him.

Before this trip, I had assumed that the vast majority of black people participated in the Movement, following MLK and the other leaders. And I had assumed that most white folks were clear on where they stood on the issues: either for, or against. But I have learned that these assumptions are mistaken.

The vast majority of protestors were students (high school and college) and young adults. People who still thought they were immortal (“It wasn’t about life or death, it was about ‘Do you want to win?'”), who did not have as much to lose in terms of status or family. In Selma, the Teachers March lent an air of credibility to what otherwise was mostly young people unwilling to wait any longer. There were older folks too, of couse, but without the young people, there would not have been a Movement.

And there were some black people who were against it. Today we also visited the Lowndes Interpretivive Center in between Selma and Montgomery. In Lowndes, 90% of the land was owned by only 86 white families – most of whom were adamantly against integration and the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

When the Selma to Montgomery marchers went through there in 1965, six months before the VRA, the local black sharecroppers and tenant farmers were scared! They were poor and in debt to the white landowners. They risked losing their jobs, their homes, and even their lives if they angered the white landowners. So when the marchers came through, and SNCC came through trying to register them to vote, most wanted nothing to do with it.

And with good cause. Because when the VRA did pass later that year, those who went to register to vote lost their homes. They were kicked out by those white landowners. “Tent Cities” sprang up, like the one where the interpretive center is currently located. SNCC had bought this land and set families up with basic needs, and then worked with them to buy land of their own, build houses, and start over.

So it wasn’t all (or even most!) black people that participated in the Movement, and even in the black community there were differing opinions. I hadn’t realized that.

And white people were not all clear on where they stood. It wasn’t as cut and dried as all that. In fact, some of the folks on this trip have shared that, though they were periferally aware of what was going on, it was not something they thought about or followed every day. That was something else that I was not aware of: that a white person in the 60s might not have an opinion or strong thoughts about the Movement.

I am taking this journey with two goals: to learn, and to be changed. Part of both of these come through looking at the Movement through the lens of how what I learn might better inform me in how to understand/act/speak of the current times.

Knowing history is important, but if we don’t use it to inform how we are today, the knowledge is as empty and as ineffective as an unlit candle in the darkness.

So how does knowing all of what I have written above inform what I think about today? First, for there to be change in this country, for some movement in the future to mobilize the people, there needs to be a leader. A person that the common folk can look at and take inspiration from. Someone they can trust to fortify them when the going gets tough.

Second, it does not have to be everyone. A certain critical mass can be reached without anything even close to 100% participation.

Third, there is a role for everyone. The young people who were working the Movement often had families to support them. Not everyone can be a warrior for justice. As long as we continue to confront our own prejudices and biases, our own assumptions, as long as we don’t fall prey too often to the many distractions that take us away from the work that matters, we are engaged in the struggle, in our own way.

Warriors need support personnel. There is nothing to be ashamed of in trying to raise our children and agitate for justice within the context of our lives, as long as we are always ready to lend a hand to help pull someone up who needs a hand. There may come a day when we are called upon to make sacrifices, to put our status or life on the line and I pray that I have the strength and courage to do so if that time comes. In the meantime, there is a role for everyone in the important work of creating a just world.

Selma.

9 Oct

At Brown Chapel AME, there are two different places where martyrs to the Civil Rights Movement (or “The Movement”) are honored: four people who died in service to the cause in 1965: Jonathan Daniels, James Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Violet Liuzzo. This is the church that was the hub for mass meetings in Selma. It was where all three marches started from (Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday, and the finally-successful Selma to Montgomery March). I have seen pictures of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Fred Shuttlesworth speaking at the pulpit.

When I walked in, I had an almost overhwleming urge to lay my body out on the floor in front of the communion rail and weep.

On Bloody Sunday, after the law enforcement officers started tear gassing, beating and chasing down the peaceful marchers, the marchers ran back here, to Brown Chapel AME. Officers on horseback rode up the stairs to the church as people ran to get inside. Those that didn’t make it were beaten.

Preparing for Turn-around Tuesday, two days later, King had called clergy and leaders from the white and black community to please, come to Selma. They did. In that chapel, there were folks of all ages, races, and religions. The Brown Chapel member who shared her story with us said it was the most beautiful sight she has ever seen in her life.

She shared that she was a junior in High School in 1965. After school, the students would go to First Baptist down the road to get trained by SNCC in how to march and be nonviolent. Then they would walk the few blocks to Brown Chapel AME for a mass meeting (which always started with singing and with praying). The place would be packed, not even standing room. Chairs were put in the aisles because the Fire Department really didn’t care if people couldn’t get out in case of fire.

I wanted to lay myself out on the floor and weep. Because so much that is so important to me happened in that sanctuary: people came together, overcame their differences, and rose to a higher purpose. That sanctuary proved to me, personally, that anything is possible. It spoke to me and said “don’t give up.” As a white woman who was not even alive during this time period, I was spiritually moved. And so, so deeply grateful.

******************

From Brown Chapel, we went to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We formed a column two people wide, and walked across in silence.

I am not a poet, but sometimes words come to me in rough poetry form. Here are my (unedited) reflections on crossing the bridge:

To walk that bridge
as a white woman
born in the decade after Bloody Sunday
is to try to understand.

That March day was cloudy.
Today, the sun shines bright, reflecting on the water below.

We go up, up.
People in front of me.
People behind me.
I can’t see anything except up the sky.
What was it like, that overcast day?
Did those walking take comfort in their fellow walkers?

Even at the crest, I can’t see what might be waiting on the other side.
Still only people and sky.

And then, finally, I am high enough and far enough away
to see where the police would have lined up
with their riot gear
and horses
down past the base of the bridge
knowing that the marchers would be able to see them as they walked on.
Their fear, their anxiety, increasing with each step.

Did the marchers have any idea what would happen that day?
Did they tell themselves, as I would have, that surely it will be just fine?
Probably not,
Because they knew in their blood and bones that they were hat.
And they would not take it anymore.
I hope that gave them strength.

And then, to be set upon.
The violence. The chaos.
Run, run, run – back up the bridge.
Back down the other side, still not safe.
Put your hands up to protect your head.
Run, run, run – back to the church.
Back to home.
Tear gas in the air all the way for miles.
Run, run, run – up the stairs,
into the church.
Get in, get in,
and get help for those who didn’t make it.

And then, when it was over,
to summon the strength to try again.
Third time’s the charm.
Making history. Being heard.

The rocks at the base of the bridge on the Montgomery side quote Joshua 4:21-22.
“When your children shall ask you in time to come saying ‘What means these 12 stones?’ You shall tell them how you made it over.”

this history ain’t over.

8 Oct

I wish that I could bring you along on this Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage, because I could write a sermon or even a book on what we experience each day. Choosing what to write here, in such a limited format, is difficult. Particularly on a day as powerful as today, day 3.

We arrived in Marion, AL this morning, at a small, unassuming church. We walked up and down the street, looking at the historical markers. If you didn’t already know, you would never guess that the idea for the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 started with this small town of 3500.

And yet it did.

We met this morning in Zion United Methodist Church and heard the stories of people who were there at the church for the night march on February 18, 1965. On this night, the local marchers didn’t get very far before being disrupted by the local authorities. The street lights were turned off, the TV journalist was attacked for having lights. And when a young man tried to help his grandfather, who was injured in the march, and his mother who was being attacked by another police officer, the young man was cornered by police and shot in the stomach. He was able to run away, but Jimmie Lee Jackson died 8 days later.

His death was not in vain. In the church, after the gunshots and chaos, one woman exlaimed “Let’s take his body and put it on the steps to the capital in Montgomery so that Wallace can see what he did” and thus the idea of a walk was born. Marion was too far, but the idea transformed into a march from Selma to Montgomery (without Jackson’s body, as it had been buried by that time.)

Martin Luther King spoke at Jackson’s funeral. The procession was over 700 people, walking through town to this small gravesite. After lunch, we saw the pocks in the marble marker that were made by people driving by and shooting at it over the years. This history ain’t over.

At the church, we listened to the stories of people who were there. People who just wanted the right to vote, to be able to participate in our democracy. They talked about how the registrar’s office was only open a few hours a month, and that there was a tax, and a ridiculous test that changed when the white folks learned that the black folks were studying for it.

One woman is now a registrar herself, and she shared with us discrepancies she has found in the current rolls that the national voter registration database is turning out. Many of the participants shared their concerns that we are slipping backwards. The emotion as they told their story was alive. This history ain’t over.

After Marion, we went to Selma. We watched a video at the Interpretive Center. Two quotes from it stand out for me. One is from a black minister trying to explain this history to high school students. He says: “It wasn’t about life, or death. It was about – do we want to win?” It was an idea that was bigger than the individuals who participated.

And the second quote is from a young woman, probably just out of high school. She says, with tears in her eyes: “Knowing what they went through, how could I not vote?” This history ain’t over.

As we drove around Selma, we stopped at the historical marker at the site where three Unitarian ministers were assaulted when they were walking back after a dinner break. The three had been among those who responded to Martin Luther King’s “clergy call” that asked for clergy to come to town for the march to Montgomery. One of the three, James Reeb, was hit in the head from behind by a white man with a club. His skull was shattered and he died 2 days later. This story was powerfully told by Clark Olsen, one of the three ministers who was there, and a fellow participant on this pilgrimage. Clark has spent many, many years telling his story and Reeb’s story in an effort to keep alive the history and sacrifice that so many people made. This history ain’t over.

Birmingham, Selma, and in a few days we will be in Montgomery. To me, these places have all been pictures in text books, or video clips in documentaries. Talking with, crying with, touching some of the people who lived through it makes this history very much alive. I can begin to see the string that connects these historical events with where we find ourselves today. This history is far, far from being over.

children.

7 Oct

Because I am a mother, it is probably not surprising that one of the things that has captivated me today and occupied much of my emotional energy on this second day of the UU Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage is the role of children in the civil rights movement.

I had no idea that there had been a Children’s Crusade as an essential part of of the movement here in Birmingham. In the spring of 1963, over the course of several days, thousands of children and youth flooded the streets in nonviolent protest. They exited 16th street baptist and filled the Kelly Ingram park across the street. The police had dogs and firehoses. Hundreds of children were arrested and put in jail. The jails were jammed, as were the jails in neighboring towns. I heard stories today from one man, 11 at the time, who was able to escape thought many of his friends were arrested. And stories from a woman who was 12 who was arrested and put into jail along with many of her compatriots.

Hundreds of children, young children through high school aged, arrested, put in a paddy wagon, and then taken to jail. The jails were overflowing with children and youth. I can’t help but wonder about kids today, particularly my kids. What cause would be so important to them that it would draw them into harms way? My privileged, over-protected children?

And then there was Sunday, September 15, 1963. That was the day that a bomb went off at 16th Street Baptist Church. The youth were to lead the service that morning, so the church was a bustling place. Dozens of people we injured. Five young girls were in the bathroom, giggling, socializing. Four of them were killed: Denise McNair was 11, Addie Mae Collins was 14, Carole Robertson was 14 and Cynthia Wesley was 14.

I have an 11 year old daughter. I can just see her giggling with her friends in the church bathroom. Church, the place we try to teach our children (and our adults) is a safe place. It wasn’t safe if you went to a black church in the south in the 50s and 60s (or a white church that supported the black community).

And today I learned it wasn’t just the 4 girls who were killed that day. Two boys were killed in separate but related incidences later. Johnny Robinson was 16, and he was shot to death (in the back) by Birmingham police, who claim he was throwing rocks at cars. Virgil Ware was only 13. He was riding on the handlebars of his brothers bike when a white teenage boy who had just gotten out of an anti-integration rally shot and killed him.

Children. Some say they are martyrs. Some say they were victims. Regardless, they were children who were never able to live to adulthood, to reach their potential. Heartbreaking. And at the same time, because of the death of these young people, the eyes of the world turned to Birmingham and things shifted.

Because of the children. Because of the children.

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