From Selma to Raleigh

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 2nd 2014.)

On March 8th 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to religious leaders around the country.  That telegram read as follows:

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America.  No American is without responsibility.  The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden.  I call therefore on clergy of all faiths to join me in Selma.

One hundred and thirty one Unitarian Universalist ministers answered that call, as well as twice that number of UU laypeople.  Joining about two thousand African American laypeople, many of them women and children, there were, in all, some four hundred and fifty religious leaders in that second march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 9th 1965.  In other words, nearly a nearly a third of the clergy who were there were Unitarian Universalists.  In fact one out of every five UU ministers answered Dr. King’s call to Selma, and in the days that followed more joined them.  The UUA’s President and Board of Trustees even adjourned their scheduled meeting, flew from Boston to Alabama, and reconvened in Selma.  As Victor Carpenter, who was serving as minister to the Unitarian Church of Cape Town at the time, summarized it:

These ministers had been called to perform a profound religious witness. It filled them with purpose and hope as well as fear and uncertainty. They were marching with America’s greatest civil rights leader of the twentieth century in a struggle against an unambiguously evil system of racial hate. Their lives were on the line. For many it was the most thrilling and personally ennobling time in all their years.

In just about every account of Unitarian Universalist history, you’ll find that the response of UUs to Dr. King’s call to Selma has consistently been a huge point of denominational pride.  “We were there,” we tell ourselves.  “When it mattered most, we showed up.”

It is not, of course, a story without tragedy.  And it’s embedded in a considerably larger story as well, a story that all Americans would do well to know better.

Records show that in 1961, Dallas County, Alabama was home to some 15,000 African Americans, representing more than half of the county’s population, many of them living in the county seat of Selma.  Of those 15,000, however, only 130 were registered to vote.  In other words, less than 1% of African Americans in Dallas County could vote, and that wasn’t unusual for Alabama and other parts of the South.  Efforts to help more African Americans register were frequently blocked by local and state officials, by a white supremacist organization called the Citizens’ Council of America, and by the Ku Klux Klan.

That blocking manifested in ways that included literacy tests, economic pressure and outright violence.  Organizers with the Dallas County Voters League were beaten.  African American school teachers who tried to register to vote were fired by the all-white school board.  Local ordinances were passed that made it illegal for civil rights groups to meet even to talk about voter registration.  President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might as well have happened in another country for all that it made a difference in Selma.

Then the Dallas County Voters League asked for help from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had been leading successful campaigns of boycotts and non-violent protests across the South.  The Selma Voting Rights Movement was launched on January 2nd 1965, when Dr. King and others defied the anti-meeting ordinance at Brown Chapel.  Along with activists from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, they organized protests and voter registration drives there and in other counties.

On February 18th, one such protest took place in Marion.  Alabama State Troopers had been ordered to target the organizer, and many of the protesters fled when the troopers rushed them.  Jimmie Lee Jackson tried to hide, with his mother, in a nearby café, but a trooper followed them and shot Jackson.  He was twenty-six years old and the only wage-earner in his household.  He died eight days later from an infection.

The leaders of the Selma Voting Rights Movement called for a march to Montgomery to demand answers from Governor George Wallace.  With so much pain and anger, the march was intended to provide a non-violent focus, something that Dr. King supported.  The governor, on the other hand, called the march “a threat to public safety” and promised to do whatever he could to prevent it.

On March 7th, some five or six hundred protesters set out from Selma, led by John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they found Alabama State Troopers waiting for them, blocking the bridge.  The troopers’ ranks were even supplemented with conscripts, thanks to the sheriff’s order for all while adult males in Dallas County to be deputized that morning.  The protesters were told to disband, but when Lewis and Williams went forward to talk to the commanding officer, the troopers attacked, knocking protesters to the ground, beating them, firing tear gas at them, even charging them on horseback.  Seventeen protesters were hospitalized, though many more were injured, and television coverage sparked national outrage over what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”.

That was when Dr. King sent out his telegram, organizing a second march that would go at least as far as the bridge, for a time of prayer on the bridge itself, given a new court order prohibiting a march all the way to Montgomery.  This time there were about two and a half thousand protesters.

On the evening of March 9th, however, three of the Unitarian Universalist ministers who had gone to Selma — Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen and James Reeb — were attacked outside by white segregationists.  Reeb was hospitalized after being struck on the back of the head and he died two days later.  On March 15th, Dr. King gave the address at Reeb’s memorial service, which was held in Brown Chapel, and UUA President Dana Greeley offered the prayer.  And with protests outside the White House and in cities across the country, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act.

There were, of course, other victims.  Viola Liuzzo was a UU layperson from Michigan, who was killed by Klansmen as she was driving to Montgomery to pick up protesters participating in the third march from Selma.  And Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, was killed by a deputy sheriff after a week in jail for participating in a protest.  And when the deaths of the white activists gained more attention than had that of Jimmie Lee Jackson, well, that drew understandable complaints.  As a 2001 UU World article about the dedication of a new memorial to Jackson, Reeb and Liuzzo at UUA headquarters put it:

Many African Americans noted bitterly at the time that Jackson’s death did not generate a sympathy call from the President of the United States, but that Reeb’s death did.  The President himself announced the arrest of four Ku Klux Klansmen charged with shooting Viola Liuzzo as she drove back toward Montgomery to pick up more weary marchers, but no one was arrested for the gunshot that killed Jackson.

It wasn’t until 2007, in fact, that the Alabama State Trooper who had shot Jackson forty-two years earlier was charged with murder; he pled guilty to manslaughter in 2010 and was sentenced to six months in prison.  Back in the 1960s, at least, the UUA had used some of the money donated in memory of James Reeb to buy a house and establish a fund to help support Jackson’s family.

I relate this decidedly unhappy history for a few reasons.

First, it hasn’t been even fifty years since these events took place.  Some of the people who took part in them are still alive, from John Lewis, who now represents Georgia’s fifth district in Congress, to Clark Olsen, who a few years ago I heard address the UU Ministers Association on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.  These events are very much a part of who they are.

Second, we should be proud of how Unitarian Universalism responded to Dr. King’s call.  Our version of a denomination had, after all, only just come into existence with the 1961 consolidation of the Universalists and the Unitarians.  Moreover, as Victor Carpenter and others would have us always acknowledge and remember, the white UUs who went to Selma acted at the direction of the Selma Voting Rights Movement and its African American leadership, something that represents what was, for the times, a remarkable suppression of those UUs’ own white privilege.

Third, knowing this history gives us more than enough reason to be thoroughly outraged that the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last year.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that it took forty-five years to convict Jimmie Lee Jackson’s killer, it’s an insult to his memory and to James Reeb’s memory and to all those who put their lives on the line to ensure that everyone could have access to the most basic tool of citizenship and democracy.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Attorney General Holder gives new depth to the word “stupid”.  I could use a few other words that aren’t appropriate for a Sunday morning, too.  Objecting to the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states and counties had to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department to change their voting laws, Chief Justice John Roberts summarized the court’s majority opinion as “things have changed”.  You know, we have a black President, and racism has magically gone away.  Yeah, right.

Now Justice Roberts did try to explain how “things have changed”, claiming that the country could no longer be divided into states and counties that embrace Jim Crow and those that don’t, and that maintaining such a division on the basis of history was unreasonable.

Well, he ignored the fact that jurisdictions can prove to a court that they meet certain criteria for getting themselves off the list needing Justice Department pre-clearance, just as counties in Virginia have done.  He also ignored the fact that Shelby County was incapable of meeting those “bail out” criteria because it continued to try to disenfranchise African Americans.  And as Justice Kagan put it, “You’re objecting to the formula [used to determine coverage by the Voting Rights Act], but under any formula Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama.

Well, now we have “things have changed” as a legal precedent.  Only in most places, they haven’t changed much in fifty years.  As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissenting opinion, “Jurisdictions covered by the pre-clearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to approve, auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the pre-clearance remedy eliminated.”  And yes, she was right.  Within hours — not days; hours — of the Supreme Court decision, officials in Texas and Mississippi — both states subject to pre-clearance — announced that they would begin enforcing voter identification laws that the Justice Department had rejected as discriminatory.

The champion of disenfranchisement, however, is North Carolina.  One month to the day after Shelby County v. Holder was decided, North Carolina passed a whole package of changes to voting laws, including just about everything that’s been tried to suppress voting, from rejecting student identification to shortening polling hours, from restricting provisional voting to making illegal paid voter registration drives.  Such changes are claimed to be necessary to combat voter fraud, where somebody shows up at a polling station claiming to be someone else, but no evidence of such in-person voter fraud has ever been found.

It’s not about any such thing as combating voter fraud, of course.  That’s just how it’s being packaged and sold in the hopes that the public will let it slide.  Rather, it’s about voter suppression, particularly suppression of the voting rights of African Americans, women, students, the disabled and the poor.  The sad thing is that apparently it doesn’t take much to get someone pushing these changes to voting laws to admit that.  North Carolina elections official Don Yelton was even fired after bragging about voter suppression tactics on The Daily Show last Fall.  During the middle of the interview, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi actually interrupted one of Yelton’s racially offensive tirades to ask, “You know we can hear what you’re saying, don’t you?”

In response to the emergence of what is being called the New Jim Crow, people began organizing, just as they did fifty years ago.  In North Carolina, their efforts coalesced in the Moral Mondays Movement, led by the Rev. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP.  Nine Unitarian Universalist ministers serving congregations and communities in North Carolina even made the commitment to engage in civil disobedience as part of the Movement, resulting in their arrest.  And on December 18th, they sent out this message:

Here in North Carolina, we have known no vacation from the struggle for voting rights.  And now, we find ourselves in the midst of an ugly battle for democracy.

As ministers and citizens of North Carolina, we’ve felt compelled to respond to this threat.  We have borne witness to a movement across our state that is resisting the immoral and undemocratic actions of our legislature and governor.  With many from the congregations we serve we’ve taken part in Moral Mondays[. …]

We went because we knew that to suppress the vote is to suppress the spirit of a person.  We knew that any attempt to erode our democracy is rooted in a desperate history of paralyzing, painful politics that would serve none of us.  We knew that our own history, and the sacrifices made by those before, called us to this struggle.  And we knew that democracy is not simply a type of governance, but is a spiritual value. […]

We have continued to show up in Raleigh and across North Carolina.  We are committed to resist laws that aim to suppress the voice of the people by reducing early voting, requiring unnecessary government-issued identification (in a state with no evidence of voter fraud) and ensuring that our students are penalized for voting on campus.  It’s unconscionable.  It’s immoral.  It’s dangerous.

We know North Carolina is being viewed as a test state to unleash these regressive chains of injustice across the country.

That is why […] we ask for you to join us in Raleigh on Saturday, February 8th, when the NAACP will host the ‘Mass Moral March on Raleigh’ as part of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street. The NAACP has a vision that this will be the most massive moral rally in the South since Selma.  And we need it to be.  We write to you to ask you urgently to come join us […] as we respond to the spiritual call to engage in the struggle.

When I read this, back in December, I knew that I had to go.  Knowing what I do of our history, I knew that I had to go.  The letter from the North Carolina ministers was drawing of course, upon the legacy of Dr. King’s telegram.  Their letter was rather longer, of course, given that the cost of a telegram was per word whereas an e-mail costs the same regardless of length or content, at least until Verizon gets its way.  But the spirit was the same, and they knew that when they wrote it, and it’s had the effect they intended by it.

Perhaps more importantly, I’m not going alone.  Around twenty of us from the Fellowship are going, and I think that includes some children.  That’s a fabulous response from a small congregation like ours.  And we’ll be in Raleigh with several hundred of our fellow Unitarian Universalists and several thousand of our fellow citizens on Saturday morning, when we march from Shaw University to the North Carolina State Capitol.

Thankfully some things really have changed, though that probably has more to do with cell ‘phone cameras and social media than it does with legislation or judicial opinion.  We won’t be confronted by armed state troopers with orders to attack us with tear gas or charge us on horseback.  So far as I know there aren’t any plans for anyone to engage in civil disobedience, either.  The worst hazard we face, in fact, is the rain that’s currently forecast for Saturday.

Not everyone can go, of course.  Not everyone wants to go.  And that’s okay.  But whether we’re going or not, I hope we all realize that we are at a turning point in history, just as we were fifty years ago.  And by “we” I mean not only the United States as a nation but Unitarian Universalism as a faith, too.

In one of his final sermons, which was given at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington DC, James Reeb said that “We are going to have to really take upon ourselves a continuing and disciplined effort with no real hope that in our lifetime we are going to be able to take a vacation from the struggle for justice.”  Well, that’s just as true today as it was fifty years ago.  And it’s part of our heritage, part of the living tradition that we begin to embrace when we join a congregation like this one.  We may not do it perfectly.  We have made mistakes — as a congregation, as a denomination — and I can guarantee that there will be mistakes in our future.  But by taking part in public witness and advocacy, or by supporting and affirming those who do, simply by being here in this imperfect microcosm of the Beloved Community that we hope to realize, we are all of us lending the weight of our souls to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

So may it be.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] Coley presented this testimonial as part of the February 2nd 2014 “From Selma to Raleigh” service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the […]

  2. […] February 2nd: “From Selma to Raleigh” […]

  3. […] of effort and risk.  On the other hand, redrawing district lines to segregate certain voters or passing laws to prevent certain people from being able to vote at all are clearly ways to skew elections that, for all that they have the appearance of legality, are […]

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