This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 29th at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma.
A few weeks back, while I was in Selma for the 50th anniversary of the march that inspired the Voting Rights Act, we had a Sunday service here reflecting back on the justice work of 50 years ago. Our member, Joyce Williams, reflected on her own memories of that time and being there. Her words should be on-line already or will be shortly and I encourage those who missed her talk, to read it when you have a moment.
I’ve heard other Selma Veterans speak before and they always open up parts of history that weren’t really taught in schools. History tends to look at the biggest moments and the rest often blur in memory. One such time I heard a Selma Veteran speak was a story I’ve briefly shared with our Fellowship before, but it takes on new qualities for me in light of my own trip to Selma earlier this month, so I want to share it with you again, and fill in some spots that are less blurry now.
A few years back I attended one of the ministers’ gatherings at our denomination’s General Assembly. In this particular worship service, there were two sermons delivered. One from a minister in their 25th year of ministry, and the second was a minister in their 50th year of ministry. The 50 year minister happened to be the Rev. Clark Olsen. Earlier this month, Joyce spoke at length about him and a few others. But briefly, Rev. Olsen was the minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians at the time of the Selma civil rights march in 1965, when he survived an attack that fatally injured another white minister, the Rev. James J. Reeb; this happening not a month after the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist – the reason for the march. I found his talk incredibly moving and remarkably humble. I always imagined the folks who marched on Selma in this otherworldly light for being the folks that stood up for their convictions, who stood up for basic humanity in each of us – and certainly they were the ones that were far ahead of the common view of the times – with some giving their lives.
I marveled though at how everyday the decision was for this minister. He spoke about how he almost didn’t even go. He wanted to, but the money wasn’t there to make the travel across the country. Then one of his congregants donated the money for Clark Olsen to travel and stand for their congregation. It gave him the opportunity to stand witness, and to be there for the last moments of his colleague and friend’s life. But I don’t even know the name of the congregant that made that possible.
Hearing this part of the story, the part that’s not shared in the history books, helped me to see the broader and deeper connections all our actions make in the work of justice in our world. It transformed it from a history lesson about certain heroes and martyrs, to one about the everyday work of building community. It certainly takes both kinds of justice work, but it reminded me that we each have a part to play. It made the impossible seem a little more probable to my mind and my heart. It’s not about a handful of people. Justice is the turning toward committed action with a concerted effort. It’s the spirit of what we often call Right Relations applied to neighborhoods, and to schools, and to court systems. And it takes all of us, in small ways and in large ways, to bring that about. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings.
Ok, that’s the recap part I felt was important to lay the groundwork for today’s sermon. While in Selma this month, we heard more stories like this. Some congregations’ Board’s would require their minister to attend. And sadly, some congregations would not approve of their minister going. Why would the church risk its standing in the community by getting involved in other people’s business, or by challenging the perfection of government or the police force in Selma. We think of the issue being so clear cut, but in the midst of tragedy we can often forget right and wrong.
We can all imagine stories alive and happening today where people of good conscious come down on different sides of a crisis for various reasons. I think of Ferguson, and Staten Island most recently centered in the media’s view. I wonder when we come down on differing sides of a situation that folks on both sides may think is crystal clear today, will we see it differently in another 50 years? I wonder how soon we can forget the role institutions and authority had in the violent deaths around Selma of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, those 4 young girls in the church, and Viola Liuzzo. I recall Rev. Dick Leonard, one of the final 300 marchers who finished the 4 day march in Selma across the bridge tell his story of the National Guard being present to protect the marchers. But he relates that for several days the National Guard were facing the marchers as if they were protecting Alabama from the peaceful protestors. They would eventually be convinced to turn around and face the trees with their Spanish Moss and Ivy – where snipers would easily be concealed, but that’s not what they were inclined to do at first.
And those roads were dangerous. Viola Liuzzo, the young Unitarian white woman from Detroit, was chased down – car to car and shot dead. This happened after the march, after she had dropped some protestors off, when everything was already over. She was just helping out, and was chased down, and gunned down, on our roadways.
We remember the images of our own institutions turning water hoses on peaceful protestors, and local State authorities ignoring Federal rules. And I think of Ferguson, MO, where a court recently had to intervene and tell local police officers that, no, in fact they could not reasonably use tear gas on people who were standing in their own yard. Apparently the courts had to intervene because peaceful protests, including prayer rallies, were being interrupted with no warning and dispersed with tear gas. And the worse part of it, there were cases where there were no points of egress, and they were still gassed. Whatever your feelings may be about the initial case regarding the death of Michael Brown, and the officer who was found to have done no wrong-doing, I think we can safely say that our American institutions should not be using tear gas on prayer rallies or people’s front lawns. But I hear those stories, and I see those images, and I remember the water hoses, and wonder where do we find Selma today? How often do we look back at the civil rights movement and become guilty of thinking it ended 50 years ago, of doubting it’s still a current crisis?
I find that challenge with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In Selma, we heard from Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of that movement. We hear folks around us, and sometimes it’s ourselves, confuse the message of #BlackLivesMatter to mean other lives aren’t as important, or it’s an indictment against all police. But in light of the reality of Selma then, we know that all of us aren’t treated equally. It’s message is to remind us that our nation isn’t acting as if Black lives matter. It’s message is to remind us that Selma wasn’t only 50 years ago. We still see disparity between the wealth and freedom of many people of color and whites. We still see concerted efforts to restrict the rights of minorities to vote, as evidenced by the rapid response in some states of restricting voter access the very day the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. One recent statistic pointed out that we currently have more black citizens in prison than were enslaved prior to the Civil War, often over non-violent crimes. Something is morally broken, and we need to stop pretending that it’s not a blazing crisis today. We can look at any one incident the media makes a flashpoint of and say, well it’s not really that cut and dry, and I think often the critic may be right. But those incidents where polarizations distort fact, don’t change the reality of the broader picture of our prisons, and our jobs and our access to voting, and the deaths on the street.
Our model of journalism has shifted over at least my lifetime to fixate on opposing views, while watching them duke it out as if there was no room for nuance or complexity. And then we try to change our world from the perspective that there are only two positions – one being right and the other wrong. That hasn’t worked for us. Whatever our opinions of the judicial rulings concerning the tragic deaths of so many men and women of color every week and every month in our country – yes every week and every month – a fact that should shock us into action – they are one tragic side of the civil rights crisis. Even if we doubt blame in these rulings, we still have voter suppression, we still have a system of imprisonment, we still have unequal access to education, and jobs, and services. These were all tied to the Selma struggle, and I see Selma still today.
It is with this lens that I challenge us to engage, reengage or renergize our work toward justice. Following the service, Diana Weaving will host a visioning meeting for our Journey Toward Wholeness group here in the Main Hall at 12:15pm. Please come, and lend your vision, and your commitment. At the end of this month, I’ll be attending a talk at Stony Brook to hear once more Rev. William Barber speak about the pressing present needs in the on-going civil rights movement. He is a founding force for the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, and several of my colleagues hope this will be inspire the start of the Moral Mondays movement here in Long Island.
I heard Rev. Barber speak in Selma and he’s a powerful speaker. If you’re available to attend on April 28th at 7pm at Stony Brook University, I would love for you to join me. He eloquently reminds us that our movement for social justice isn’t a political movement. It’s not republicans or democrats. It’s a moral movement.
The platform of this new wave of the ongoing civil rights movement is as follows:
1. EQUAL JUSTICE: Equal Protection Under the Law — Justice Without Regard to Race, Religious Beliefs, Class, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Immigration Status or Physical Disability.
2. ECONOMIC JUSTICE: Policies that support our labor force, including a living wage, access to healthcare, the right of all workers to organize and bargain collectively for pay, benefits and workplace rights.
3. EDUCATION EQUALITY: Provide a well-funded quality public education for all.
4. HEALTHCARE FOR ALL: Safeguard the health and quality of life for all.
5. VOTING RIGHTS: Protect and expand voting rights and ensure equal access for all voters to improve voter participation.
6. ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE & SUSTAINABILITY: Policies that provide clean water, air and food and ensure green spaces, and promote sustainability for all communities.
Selma is today. Most of these 6 talking points were part of the movement led by Martin Luther King 50 years ago. It’s not new. It may be even more inclusive, but it’s beyond political; it’s ethical. The language Rev. Barber would use is the language of sin. Although as UU’s we don’t believe in the concept of original sin, we certainly recognize humanity has imagined countless ways to act from greed, hatred, and indifference. Whether the word sin speaks to you, or not, what it points to is very important. There are things in life that are right and wrong. That’s not just politics. Those six talking points around justice: broader equality, economic, educational, health, democracy and environmental – are issues that neither of our country’s two big parties gets right all the time or maybe at all. We can pretend that it’s just an intellectual game of politics or we can recognize that there are ways in which we as a people are complicit in harm on each other and on our planet. And we can respond with faith, conscience and integrity.
Each succession of the civil rights struggle has echoes of its predecessors. But each turn toward justice is developed upon the efforts of countless unnamed individuals. Look for your place in the history and future of this work, because it truly takes all of us to make this possible. Some of us will be called to travel our country to stand witness, and others will need to stay behind to do the work in the corners of the world in which we choose to dwell – everyday. What corner can you inhabit?