The Selma Awakening – March 8, 2015

The Selma Awakening

Schuylkill UU’s

March 8, 2015

There are four (4) pieces of my sharing this morning:

  • a ‘snapshot’ of some UU history prior to the Civil Rights Movement;
  • the story of courageous UU participation in the Selma to Montgomery marches, perhaps our finest hour;
  • another ‘snapshot’ of some UU history since the “Selma Awakening”;
  • and a couple questions to ask of yourself, of ourselves.

I have used four primary resources: two books by Mark Morrison-Reed – Black Pioneers in a White Denomination and The Selma Awakening; a tome, The Arc of the Universe is Long – a massive compilation of UU involvement with racial justice; and a couple pages from the U.U.A. Website – the Chris Walton’s time-line in particular.  They say “love is in the details”, and I’ve tried to to write this with love.

Before going any further however, let me be clear about something: all bigotry is the same: racism, misogyny, anti-antisemitism, Islamaphopbia, Gay bashing,  differently-abled bias …  all of it    is fear of the “other”   that morphs into subtle bias or open hatred ..  often upon unconscious cues. Let me repeat that …

Prior to the 1960’s and the Civil Rights Movement, the espoused values of both the Universalists and the the Unitarians clearly expressed a belief in the dignity of all people. In 1790, at the very first convention of Universalists in Philadelphia, they called for Abolition.  In the early 19th century, Theodore Parker – the great Transcendentalist preacher of the times – kept a gun in his office because he advocated abolition .. and was know to harbor run away slaves.  I could add dozens of other examples of individual Universalists and Unitarians advocating abolition and the dignity of all persons.  But by and large these were individual efforts.  Collective, congregational efforts were rare.  And it is fair to say that those out-spoken ministers were usually more tolerated than supported. By 1961, at the merger, there were no more than a handful of ministers of color and I believe none of them were called as full time senior minister.  There were a handful of women parish ministers, thanks to the ordination of Olympia Brown a century earlier.  But in spite of a dozen or more Black pastors who sought us out through the 19th and 20th century, none … were warmly welcomed.  In Black Pioneers in a White Denomination Mark Morrison-Reed documents those sad, shameful stories.  I shan’t recount them here;   the point is – while our principles and various resolutions and sermons spoke for human dignity  ..  and there were significant efforts on the part of a few ministers, and fewer congregations .. overall, our espoused values were not matched by our actions.

Here’s the story of our “Selma Awakening”.  To our everlasting credit, by the mid-60’s, a century after the Civil War and 19th Amendment and a decade after the Brown v. Topeka school integration case, all of the UU preaching and religious education began to take root.  As the Civil Right’s Movement gained steam .. and especially, as the struggle came into American homes by way of TV .. the newly merged Unitarian Universalist faith rose to meet the occasion.    The Selma Awakening became, arguably, ‘our finest hour’.  It is tragic that it has taken a half century to be documented in Mark’s book, but it is a story of idealism, courage, faith, and relationships   that finally made us an authentic voice for human dignity.  Here is a sketch of that story, drawn largely from Mark’s book and on-line resources from the U.U.A.

Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) conceived of the voting rights campaign in November 1964.  SNCC (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) was already organizing in Selma.  In January 1965 Dr. King went to Selma and began preaching and organizing out of Brown Chapel, A.M.E.    Lyndon Johnson had been elected President in his own right, and in his State of the Union Address called for voting rights as a priority of his administration.  In early February, 105 Black school teachers defied the superintendent and rallied at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma.   In February, King and 500 schoolchildren were arrested in Selma; 650 African Americans marched in nearby Marion.  And Unitarian Universalist ministers Ira Blalock and Gordon Gibson arrived in Selma to work with the SCLC.   The Rev. Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, the first president of the newly merged Unitarian Universalist Association, sent a telegram to King in jail, praising him as a “model of discipline and non-violence.”  Greeley also urged President Johnson and Congress to guarantee voting rights to all citizens.  Dr. King knew Dana Greeley because while living in Boston pursuing his PhD, he and Coretta King and the family regularly attended our Arlington Street church where Greeley was minister.  And a handful of activist UU ministers also knew him.

Later in February, Sheriff Jim Clark chased 165 Black teens out of town with armed officers and patrol cars.  Dozens were injured and Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young SNCC organizer, was shot by a state trooper.  He died a week later.  The SCLC called for a protest march at Jackson’s memorial service, and  the first march from Selma to Montgomery began on March 7th, but state troopers and a sheriff’s posse stopped the marchers with clubs and tear gas on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.   TV news footage of “Bloody Sunday” interrupted a TV program about Nazi atrocities.    Dr. King called upon religious leaders around the country to join him in Selma.   One of those calls was to Rev. Dana Greeley.  On March 8th – exactly 50 years ago today – Dr. Homer Jack took King’s telegram at the UUA offices in Boston and began calling UU ministers.

With flurry of calls & anguished family discussions –  Orloff Miller, James Reeb, and Clark Olsen are among 40 ministers who left for Selma that very night.

By the next day, 450 religious leaders had joined 2,000 African Americans for a second march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.   After praying at the site of Sunday’s attack, they turned back to Brown Chapel. That night, James Reeb, Clark Olsen, and Orloff Miller were attacked outside a whites-only restaurant.  Reeb was gravely injured and Clark Olsen accompanied him as an ambulance took him first to the Selma hospital, then on to the larger Montgomery hospital.  Notified by the UUA, Jim Reeb’s wife was flown to Alabama, but on March 11th he died.  All of this was covered by the TV news and major papers …..  1,000’s protested outside the White  House. The story “went viral” ……

Several hundred UU leaders – more than 200 ministers, about 1/5 of our clergy, and twice that number UU lay people joined tens of thousands of others in Selma.   Dr. King delivered the eulogy at Reeb’s memorial service in Brown Chapel.  President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Bill, and ended by quoting the song “and we SHALL overcome”.   Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a Detroit UU laywoman and housewife enrolled at Wayne State University, decided to go to Selma.

On March 21st,   after two aborted marches, – with the National Guard protecting them – 3,200 marchers left Selma – for Montgomery, and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge – named for a Confederate General and leader of the Klu Klux Klan – where President Obama spoke yesterday . The Rev. Richard Leonard and Steve Graves, a Meadville – Lombard seminarian were the only UU’s among the 300 marchers who completed the full march.  But on March 25th, 25,000 triumphant  demonstrators joined the marchers when they reached Montgomery for a final rally at the state capitol.   That night, Viola Liuzzo was shot and killed by Ku Klux Klansmen as she drove toward Montgomery to pick up a carload of marchers.

Three men were indicted for the murder of James Reeb.  Three others were indited for the murder of Viola Liuzzo.   All were acquitted,   although the three in the Liuzzo case were convicted later on civil rights charges.  The Voting Rights Act was signed in to law by President Johnson on August 6th.  But that wasn’t the end of the bloodshed in Alabama.   On August 20th, Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, and Father Richard Morrisroe, a Chicago priest, were released from a week in jail for participating in a public demonstration in Lowndes County.   A deputy sheriff shot them before they could leave town. Daniels died instantly; Morrisroe  was seriously injured. The deputy sheriff was acquitted of murder charges.

So there were four dead “martyrs”, two of them UU’s.  But the Voting Rights Act has made a huge difference in the American politics and culture.

That is the story, or at least the outline of it. (We will deal with how it has recently been eviscerated by the the Supreme Court another time.)  Mark’s book fleshes out the human side, relationships,  of the many personal accounts.  I urge you to read it .. you do not know the vibrancy of our faith without grasping this moment in time.  Because in those desperate, courageous, triumphal months Unitarian Universalists were transformed in two essential ways:

  • First – we learned that our espoused values – however righteous – were hollow until they were tested and lived out by our flesh and blood efforts to bring justice and peace authentically alive.
  • Second – we learned that it takes a “beloved community”, deep enduring relationships, to truly make a difference. 

The Selma Awakening was, to my mind, our finest hour.  Without that realization – that our expressed values have to be given authentic actualization –  and the centrality of  relationships – ‘beloved community’ – I doubt very much that our subsequent leadership in the Gay – Lesbian – Bisexual & Transgendered movement would have been so powerful.   If you didn’t know, we have led the way in ordaining G-L-B-T ministers and accepting G-L-B-T people in our conregations. Our “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign has been vital across the country.  And we have, by–the–way, also led the way with the ordination of women ministers .. now more than half of our clergy.

I knew about the role of James Reeb because he had interned at the Hartford UU Meeting House where Terry and I and the kids had found Unitarian Universalism.  But strangely, I didn’t hear about Viola Liuzzo and the rest of the story for another decade or more.  Not even in the UU courses in seminary, or as I met some of the people who were there.  The story got sublimated by a sad, painful development.  Riding the tide of the Selma Awakening, several hundred African Americans joined UU congregations, sometimes when they supported local civil rights causes like housing integration.  Across America the “Black Empowerment” movement was in full swing.  At an “emergency caucus” called by Black and White UU’s, in Baltimore in October 1967, it was proposed  to authorize $250,000 for four years, a million dollars, to be administered by a Black UU caucus.  And also for a Black representative on the UUA  Board and subsidies for Black ministers.  There was resistance from within from the start, and two camps emerged .. “BAC” – the Black Action Caucus – which wasn’t all Black, but did see the necessity for African Americans to have self determination over efforts in Black communities .. and “BAWA” – the Black And White Alliance”, which put integration and joint control as the prime principle. (Which meant Whites would have defacto control.)  It was an ugly conflict.

The U.U.A. Board, which had the legal authority over money, rejected the plan and put forth a revised the plan for a single $300,000 fund, split between two groups.  Within a year it became apparent that the U.U.A. had badly overreached. The UUA budget was over optimistic to begin with, and some of the income came from annual pledges from wealthy benefactors … and some them stopped pledging.  At the 1968 General Assembly there was again a bitter, ugly dispute  ..more walkouts, separate meetings, personal recriminations.  A smaller program was eventually passed, but the bitterness was very, very deep, and extended to many congregations who weren’t ready for genuine integration of people of color, especially if money was at stake.  Many, many Black UU’s left the church, some minsters were forced out.  And the Selma Awakening and the Empowerment Controversy were banished from polite conversation.  The wounds were deep, and are only in recent years beginning to heal.  ?? How deep .. in 1982, fifteen years later, I was aghast at a minister’s chapter meeting when a casual reference flared within minutes into a raging shouting match between two colleagues whom I liked very much – one “BAC”, one “BAWA”.  It was stopped only when others restrained them physically from a nasty fight.  ??

The topic was never again discussed in that ministers chapter nor any other that I participated in, faithfully, over the next two decades.  And even when I served Restoration,  proudly integrated in an integrated neighborhood , neither the Selma Awakening nor the Empowerment Controversy were ever discussed.

I’ll spare you some of the stories I began to hear by cautiously listening and getting involved.  During the 1980’s A half dozen ministers of color were brought into Fellowship, and as many new, purposely integrated congregations were tried.   But all of them failed, and I lost three or four Black friends and colleagues.  We weren’t ready to talk openly, let alone ready to intentionally seek to become authentically anti-racist and multicultural.  But time heals,and the culture has leaped ahead of us. Perhaps in the 21st century we are more ready.  Today, finally, two dozen ministers of color, mostly women, are serving in UU congregations.  We seem ready to talk openly.  Mark Morrison-Reed’s next book will cover the “Empowerment Controversy”  ..  I hope I live to read it.

I share this epilogue because it is the truth.  And because only by knowing it can we appreciate the depth of the effort and sacrifice in the Selma Awakening.

As tragic as our halting, imperfect efforts were after-wards, UU’s made a huge difference in Selma.  And we HAVE prevailed where Gays and Women are concerned.   I attribute that to relationships – the fact that we already had Gays and women in our families and our congregations, and because we knew them, when they came out or aspired to office it was easier to recognize their inherit and talent.   Only today, are most of us beginning to personally encounter Blacks regularly .. where we work or where we live.  But blessedly, our children have internalized their liberal Sunday School lessons, and – mostly – they are ready.     And the story of the Selma Awakening will resonate in their lives  … and they shall teach us anew …

  • that our expressed values can become our living values ….
  • and that deep relationships in “beloved community” make it possible for individual worth to be most fully expressed.

President Obama, speaking yesterday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, spoke profoundly about how while America is not yet perfect, it is our persistent struggle to forge ‘a more perfect union’ that defines us.  So it is for Unitarian Universalism … we struggle, fall back, build deeper relationship, and struggle more, patiently sometimes – fiercely sometimes, to live up to our deep, precious cutting edge values.

I am so grateful and even proud that we have remained engaged and struggled to become our best selves, a vibrant living faith.  We here are new, and small, and yet I have already seen us be authentic in our values.  The Soup Kitchen is a significant effort.  If you haven’t had a chance to participate see Jan.  We always need more hands.  And when a candidate for Congress dared file suit to prevent Gay marriage, you responded publicly, without hesitation or fear.  And we are doing the Crop Walk with our children.

I don’t have to dwell upon the sad parallels with the racism in Ferguson and elsewhere today .. nor of the persistence of homophobia, misogyny.  I do not ask you to make a placard and protest in the rain – or snow – at every issue that goes viral .. (although I promise you I will join you when you do).

I DO that ask we become more than a comfortable enclave … I call us to to make this congregation a mission-oriented body, ready to reach out and join with others when the time calls us to.  To do so will take,  first,  some real effort to shore up our present programs and deepen our strenght as a beloved community,   and then .. some serious listening, learning and discerning.  I am so honored to share this march with you.  And as in the Selma Awakening ….

We have over come;

we SHALL overcome.

Amen – Shalom, Salaam – Namaste – Blessed be.

Rev. Bob Throne, final draft – March 7,2015 – 50th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday