Monday, January 9, 2012


In Unitarian Universalism, our first (of seven) principles is the inherent dignity and worth of every person, and the second is justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  So it was entirely appropriate that this weekend's Sunday service at my church focused on the civil rights movement, as we get close to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday next weekend.  Almost every Sunday in church I get choked up about something, but this time went way beyond choked up.

One of our ministers is also a social worker, like me.  She has a gentle but direct way of bringing up things that are not always comfortable to discuss, but must be, especially in a faith community that is called to change the world for the better.   Sunday, she told the story of Viola Liuzzo,  a 39-year-old white mother of five killed at point-blank range for driving a young black fellow civil rights worker in Montgomery.  She lived an interesting life that led up to her answering Dr. King's call for people to come to Selma and march to Montgomery.  Thousands of people were too busy, or too scared, or too disconnected to go, but she went.  And she was murdered by white supremacists.

I had read and heard about the march from Selma to Montgomery almost my entire life.  I grew up in Washington, DC and stood on the spot where Dr. King delivered his speech.  I went to college in Auburn, Alabama and had classmates who were co-enrolled at Tuskegee University.  Some of my teachers, and later, my clients, participated in the march.  The scorch marks of the civil rights movement are still on the earth and the people, decades after the action.

Very soon after we were married, my husband lost his grant funding and quickly found another job in Jackson, Mississippi.  I stayed behind in Alabama, working and getting ready to sell our house.  We agreed that he would come home one weekend, and I'd go over there the next, for the summer until the house sold.  The first summer Friday, I headed west on a gorgeous evening with all the windows open, through the fertile Black Belt of Alabama (so called for the rich cotton-growing soil, not the people), the gentle rolling hills and open fields of ripening cotton stretching for miles after I-85 ended and US-80 started.  The sun was setting, all was well.

And then this:

Just right there, right in front of me, driving my car through Selma, this loomed in front of me.  I almost drove off the road.  This image was in all my history textbooks and some of my nightmares after I learned what happened that awful Sunday.  I quite literally had to pull the car over and stop the tears to be able to drive over this bridge.  Seeing it in living color felt like a slap in the face.   This is the bridge on March 7, 1965, where police officers attacked peaceful marchers on their way from Selma to Montgomery.  There is an eeriness there, a calmness and yet an energy that is hard to describe, just being in that place.

I grew up in a place where a lot of our nation's significant history happened.  I walked through the homes of the founders of our nation and appreciated them and what they did.  But I have never felt history as deeply and viscerally as I did that day.  This place looks the same, except that there are no crowds, no teargas, no screaming.  You can still feel it, though.

In church, the following poem was read about the civil rights movement and the lives lost in fighting for what are basic human freedoms.  In the poem, everyone who died for this freedom gets back up and marches alongside the living for the cause.  The two readers were in tears throughout, and by the end, so were we all.  I have a great deal of pride in belonging to a church that sent half its ministers to Selma to participate in that march (Rev. James Reeb was a UU minister), and who works now on civil rights issues involving nationality, sexuality, and gender.  Bless everyone who answered Dr. King's call to march to Montgomery, and may we never tire of working to ensure that everyone has the right to be free.

March to Montgomery.  The first six blocks to the bridge were peaceful.

    The road from Selma stretches in the rain
    white as a shroud, rimmed with stiff troopers.
    The marchers stand bowed, hands joined, swaying gently
    their soft strong song stilled.
    Then up from a Birmingham bed
    rises a gentle Boston man, Jim Reeb,
    steps softly back to Selma
    and moves among the stilled marchers.
    The troopers stir, link arms,
    close ranks across the road
    stretching from Selma in the rain
    white as a shroud.
    The Boston man, Jim Reeb, walks toward the troopers
    and they straighten and stand guard tight as death.
    But someone moves behind them, waves his hand.
    "That you, Jackson?" Jim Reeb peers ahead.
    "That's right, Reverend. Come on through."
    The troopers tighten guard, straight as death
    But Jim Reeb doesn't stop.
    He goes on through,
    right through the stiff ranked troopers
    white as a shroud
    rimming the road from Selma.
    And Jimmie Lee Jackson takes him by the arm
    and they march down the road to the courthouse.
    Over in Mississippi Medgar Evers stands,
    three young men rise up from a dam in Neshoba County
    and they all go down the road
    and walk right through the tight stiff trooper line
    and down the road from Selma.
    And from all over there's a stirring sound.
    Emmett Till jumps up and runs laughing like any boy
    through the stiff white rim.
    Four small girls skip out of a church in Birmingham
    and the tall old man in Springfield gets up
    and goes to Selma.
    And down from every lynching tree
    and up from every hidden grave
    come men, women, children, heads carried high,
    passing a moment among the bowed, stilled troopers
    and down the white road from Selma.
    Until the age long road is packed
    black with marchers streaming to the courthouse.
    And the bowed stilled group in Selma
    raise their heads, hands joined,
    swaying gently, in soft strong song
    that goes right through the stiff ranked troopers
    white as a shroud
    barring the road from Selma.
Copyright © 1965 June Brindel.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and this Post. It was a very interesting read.