“A Holy Consecration”
The 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Part 1
From March 5th through March 8th, I had the opportunity to travel to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Dean of Youth and a chaplain for young adults at the Unitarian Universalist Living Legacy Project conference “Marching in the Arc of Justice: Revisiting Selma”. This weekend long conference featured an optional Thursday bus tour of Selma, Alabama, keynote speakers like Mark Morrison Reed and Opal Tometi, workshops related to racial justice and intersectionality, worships, and concluded with joining 70,000 people in crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years after marchers were brutally attacked by police and civilian possees as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery.
I arrived in Birmingham on Wednesday afternoon in order to prepare myself emotionally and spiritually for the weekend.
Thursday was the first day of the conference, and there were many concerns about weather delays affecting many people including one of the youth attending the conference for the weekend. We embarked for Selma early afternoon, and I did not know what to expect when we arrived in Selma. Along the way, Rev. Jim Hobart, a veteran of the Selma Civil Rights Campaign, shared his personal history as well as other relevant historical facts of the area and the Civil Rights Movement. I figured a town of such infamy as Selma would have a thriving tourist industry based on its claim to fame. Instead, we found a small town, “A Nice Place to Live.”
Our first stop in Selma was at the memorial for Rev. James Reeb, who was attacked along with Rev. Clark Olsen and Rev. Orloff Miller after they followed the call of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) for clergy to come to Selma. Upon departing the bus, I walked down to the building that used to be the Walker Cafe. That evening, more than 50 years ago, James and his friends had finished dinner and were heading to a meeting. Most of the folks turned left when they left the Walker Cafe.
James, Clark, and Orloff turned right. Carrie Stewart and I stood in the doorway, faced the street and turned right.
They walked a block and a half, most likely talking about the rest of the evening or perhaps catching up on each other’s lives. Carrie and I walked a block and half reflecting on the footsteps we followed 50 years after.
The group of men was attacked by another group of men, not even two blocks away from where their colleagues and friends were finishing dessert. Rev. James Reeb took a blow to the head that knocked him unconscious and led to his death. The other two men took a beating, just like many others had been beaten by the fists of hate-filled white men. Carrie and I stood at that spot. Next to Reeb’s memorial and looking upon the mural that covers the brick building next to the lot.
Much has been said about the way Unitarian Universalists (UU) reflect upon the deaths of Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, and the way that influences our perception of Selma and of racism. Walking that short path reminded me of my white privilege. I have walked from many restaurants late at night and have never feared being attacked by a posse or the police. I have participated in quite a few protests and never feared being attacked by the police. 50 years ago, these men, who look the same as me, felt called to come to Selma knowing that violence was a possibility. They risked their lives for justice, and as did thousands of black men and women. As one of the UU youth said the next day during worship, “Where will my story end up?” I wonder, what will my story be?
After visiting the Reeb memorial, we went to Brown Chapel AME Church. Out front, they have a memorial of Martin Luther King Jr. that says “I Had A Dream.” I’ll be 100% honest and say I have no idea why they used the past tense. If you know the reason, let us know in the comments! After about five minutes outside, the pastor came up and let us into the sanctuary, which was an unexpected surprise.
After walking around the sanctuary for a moment, I found myself sitting in the pews. Sitting in a spot where someone sat 50 years before, who was passionate about justice and who fought for their rights and the rights of their community. 20 feet in front of where I sat, MLK once stood in the pulpit and preached passionately from his heart. As I lingered in a space of awe, Kim and Reggie Harris started singing with two of the members from Brother Sun their song, “This little line of mine…” I closed my eyes, put down my camera and cell phone, and decided to be present in the moment. Surrounded by fellow Unitarian Universalists, as the notes of the song rose and filled the sanctuary, I could almost feel the presence of the ancestors who came before. The ancestors who stood up to hate and oppression, withstood violent words and acts, and did not stop until they had succeeded.
From Brown AME, we drove by the courthouse before grabbing a quick dinner and then we went to the Historic Tabernacle Baptist Church. We were invited to join them for a mass-meeting and the Memorial for the Martyrs of the Movement. Tabernacle has two entrances, because when it was built Jim Crow laws said that no black church or business could have an entrance on Broad St. Instead of bowing under the law, they resisted by building two separate and equal entrances.
Tabernacle was packed to the gills when we arrived, and I found a spot on the balcony where I could see the choir but not the pulpit. The crowd was passionate and the preaching fervent. Pastor Culliver, a mere 29 years old, led the service and invited special guests to pray and preach.
First, we honored the Martyrs of the Movement. There were seventeen candles lit to honor the martyrs, and as their names were spoken and the date and time of their death announced, a candle was blown out. After, congregants spoke the names of those who died fighting for civil rights for all and the congregation responded with the word “ashe.” Jeffery Tribble defines ashe as “…is a Yoruba term meaning ‘energy or essence’ and is used as a word of affirmation. It’s similar to the word amen; however a more nuanced meaning is something like ‘I affirm with all of my energy, with all of my essence that which is taking place'”. The names echoed from every corner of the church and the response echoed in my heart as I took a breathe (ashe) to honor the heroes of the movement.
After a prayer by the former mayor of Selma, and greetings from Rev. Dr. F.D. Reese (who was the president of the Dallas County Voter’s Leader in 1965), Unitarian Universalist Association Moderator Jim Key shared a greeting. We heard from Cornell William Brooks, the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Bernard Lafayette also spoke about accepting the position with Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to organize the voting rights campaign in Selma. He said (and this is a paraphrase) that they were looking at a map and Selma had a big X through it. When he asked why, the leaders told him that they had sent a team to Selma and the team said that Selma was going to be the toughest to change. Bernard Lafayette told them that he’d take the challenge, and he stepped up to organize the voting rights campaign for the SNCC.
The keynote sermons came from Dr. Bernice A. King, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Dr. William Barber. Each one of the speakers connected scripture to social justice, past to present, and called for us to work harder, to work together for justice.
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I was too busy listening to their words and taking in the energy on the room to take notes. One statement that did stick with me comes from Dr. William Barber, leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. He said, with a booming voice, “We are not here for a celebration. This is a holy consecration.” He explained further that what was started in the sixties is not over now, we still have many battles ahead of us, because no one is free until we are all free.
After night worshiping and honoring the martyrs, I (and many other UUs) left the Historic Tabernacle Church energized to listen and learn all we could during the conference. We each came to Selma for different, but similar reasons, and that night we were all called to take what we learned and experienced home with us too.