Poem by Thomas J. Gardner, Jr., in tribute to Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth on display in the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama:
"Keepers of the Flame"
There is a sacred sect of men on earth,
So few and yet too numerous to name,
Hand picked by God as sentinels,
The Keepers of the Flame.
This torch eternal lights the way in the wilderness
For the weary masses that grope,
The Keepers protect it from the blistering desert winds
This precious flickering flame of hope.
You will always know a Keeper
For they’ll stand in harm’s way if standing alone.
They’re all blessed with the gift of placing the needs of others
Just above their own.
This torch eternal passed down through the ages
By the Ones who look down from on high,
They always choose a hardy breed
So that justice and truth never die.
Past by Marylin Huff
What you know about the civil rights movement of the sixties strongly depends on how you experienced it or how you learned about it after the fact, and there is a tremendous amount of variability in either scenario. Perhaps some of you remember when, on the evening of Sunday, March 7, 1965, ABC interrupted the broadcast of the movie “Judgment at Nuremberg” to cut to footage of the vicious attack by Alabama state troopers and local vigilantes on six hundred black citizens of Selma. For others, it may seem like ancient history.
The civil rights movement happened before I was born, so I learned about it in school. Sort of. As much as was taught in the Dallas public schools. I remember a list of Supreme Court decisions and the Civil Rights Acts, but there was little mention of the struggle to achieve those things. That part was edited out. Yeah sure, I knew that MLK was assassinated, but I only really knew that as an historical event.
There was a long time in my life when I never cried. Not at funerals. Never. Well, I cried if an animal died. But people, not so much. I experienced a trauma when I was very young and I built a wall to protect myself. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t hurt. That changed with motherhood. Maybe it was the hormones. Maybe I finally had to deal with my past trauma. In any case, the protective wall fell away and I cry easily now. Usually, anyway. And, sometimes embarrassingly.
Until 11 years ago, everything I knew about the struggle part of the Civil Rights Movement came to me annually from radio or TV programs on Martin Luther King Day. You gotta love NPR. Then, in 2004, I finally heard a deep enough account of the civil rights struggle that I finally understood, and I cried.
The movie, Selma, helped me understand the horror of the Civil Rights struggle at still a deeper level. I saw the movie a little over a month before I went to Selma. It was my preparation. And I cried.
And then, I was there. I was standing in front of Brown Chapel, where Dr. King held his mass meetings and spoke from the pulpit. I was there, crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge, on the very spot where blood was shed. I didn’t cry.
I expected to cry. I wanted to cry. I had tissues. Any caring person would have cried at the accounts the civil rights veterans told of the frustrations, of the anger, of the fear of the time. I didn’t cry. That protective wall had returned and I experienced the conference in Birmingham and the March in Selma as a detached student of history.
I kept the experience in my head. I took pictures, I tweeted. I posted to Facebook. But, I didn’t feel.
When I came home, I made a distinct effort to tell people about my trip. Then, finally, I started to feel. The wall started to crumble. The conference drew parallels between what happened then and what is happening now, and I got that then. I even applauded that then. Very analytically.
But, after I got home, my world view had shifted. I couldn’t see current events in the same way anymore. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott - now they have the backdrop of Selma and state sanctioned brutality. The current news hits my heart with more urgency. What is going on in this country? Do we learn nothing from our own history? It makes me want to cry.
Selma Awakening Part One by Rev. Peter Friedrichs
It hit me. It hit me like a ton of bricks. The conference in Birmingham hadn’t even begun. We had just checked in and gotten our name badges, and I was wandering the halls of the hotel. I turned a corner and there, standing in the hallway was a small clutch of young black men standing and talking to each other. There were four or five of them, and it was clear that they already knew each other well. They were probably in their early to mid-20’s, and they were bantering and laughing, at ease and comfortable. They were wearing name badges just like mine, so I knew they were attending the same conference I’d come to Alabama for. I smiled at them as I walked by.
And then it hit me. How, I wondered, would I have reacted seeing this same group of young black men not in a brightly lit hotel hallway, but on the street? How about on the street in at night? Not wearing conference badges, but baggy jeans and hoodies? I didn’t wonder long. Because I knew the answer. I knew that if I’d seen this same group of young black men hanging out on the street, whether it was in Birmingham, Philadelphia or Media – “Everybody’s Home Town”- I’d have been anxious. Maybe even fearful. At least wary and on guard. I know from past experience that my heart would have started beating a little faster and my blood pressure would have gone up. And I know I would have at all cost avoided making any kind of eye contact with them. No way would I have smiled at them. All of this went through my mind in a split second. And, as I said, the conference hadn’t even started yet.
This, in part, is why I went to Selma and the Marching in the Arc of Justice pilgrimage. To confront and encounter my past. It’s a past that’s complicated by racism and regret. The regret piece has always lingered at the back of my mind. I regret that I was born in 1956. I know it’s silly to regret something that you had no control over, but there it is. Having been born when I was, I never had the chance to join in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I was only 6 years old at the time. I never had the chance to be a Freedom Rider, one of those courageous college students who boarded buses headed into the deep South, knowing that they rode those buses with targets on their backs. I never had the chance to respond to Dr. King’s call to Selma after the ambush of nonviolent marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” I was too young for all these things. Even too young to remember them. What I wonder now is what I would have done back then. If I had been old enough, would I have gone to Washington, or Mississippi, or Selma? I’ll never know. So in part I went to Selma for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday because I could. I didn’t want one more regret.
I also went to exorcise some old demons. Because, you see, I was raised a racist and, truth be told, I still struggle with my racism. That’s what the story about the young black men at the conference was about. I was brought up in an environment that taught me that black people – especially young, black men – are violent and scary. That they’re criminals and thugs and drug dealers. That you need to give them a wide berth and that you’d better hold onto your wallet if you see a black man approaching you on the street at night. Because, of course, they’re all muggers and murderers. This is what I was taught to believe. And although I know now that these were all lies, I can’t keep my body from having some of those same reactions in those same situations. I can’t keep my heart from skipping a beat when I’m alone on a subway and a group of African American teenagers board the car at the next stop. I can’t help it if my blood pressure starts to pound in my ears when I’m on the street at night and a couple of black kids are approaching me on the sidewalk. But I can learn from the past and apply those learnings to the future. What I can do – what we all can do – is to do the work of naming racism when we see it and working to put an end to it in the places where we live. So that’s why I went to Selma, too. To learn about the struggle that was and the struggle that is. Selma was half a century ago. Selma is now. Black lives matter.
Present by Marylin Huff
There's a note in my phone from 9:47 AM June 29, 2014. It says “March 2015 Selma.” That's when I decided I was going. I was at General Assembly, the annual conference of the UUA, and there was a postcard advertising the event in my chair. What was it about that postcard that so boldly told me to “GO!”? Not, “Hmm, that’s interesting, I wonder if maybe I could go.” No. I knew I was going. Why? Who am I in relationship with that drew me so strongly to go? I don’t know.
Nine months is a long time to wait – to hold the conviction to go. I likely would not have gone if these guys hadn’t been going. Way… too scary. So, is my important relationship with these guys? Maybe. Partially.
More, I think I knew immediately that I would go because I wanted to understand the past in a way that I knew I didn’t. I was on a quest for knowledge and understanding.
In Alabama, I heard personal accounts of the civil rights movement from the people who had been there and from the families of those who were murdered - the families of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, Rev James Reeb.
I can identify with Viola Liuzzo, though 3 months ago, I didn’t know who she was. In 1965, Viola Liuzzo was a 39 year old UU and mother who saw what was going on in Alabama, got mad, and went to do what she could to help fix it. I can see myself doing that.
In Birmingham last month, Viola Liuzzo’s daughter, Penny, said, “It feels like we’re going backward.” That’s a powerful statement from someone who lost her mother to the movement 50 years ago. And sobering. A few years ago, when I was involved in the Occupy Movement, my daughter would tell me, before I left home, “Don’t get arrested Mommy.” Not that my being arrested was ever really likely, but, still, she didn’t know about the slip of paper in my pocket folded around my ID with instructions for who to call in case of emergency.
On the bus ride from Birmingham to Selma, we passed the place on HWY 80 where Viola Liuzzo was chased down and shot by members of the KKK. There is a memorial to her there on the side of the road. As our bus slowed and then passed, the Liuzzo family was gathered there for a private memorial service. They stood inside the fence that protects the memorial from vandals. Sigh. It’s a nice fence.
We have a problem in this nation. When I see a problem, I want to fix it. The first step is to stop ignoring it.
Goose Bumps and Tears by Ruth Hendry
Reflecting on the trip to Alabama, which I gave to myself as a retirement gift, it comes down to goose bumps and tears. There is no way to convey all the intense emotions that surrounded our journey. But here’s a few thoughts. We drove through Selma, visited the James Reeb Memorial, and the Walker Café where the UU ministers dined before the fatal beating. The overflow crowd at the memorial service at the Tabernacle church, heard Dr Bernice King, Rev Dr. William Barber, and Dr. Jerimiah Wright who said Black lives matter, all lives matter, that’s all the matters. We had a yummy soul food dinner at the George Wallace Community College. Yes, that George Wallace. The Good Samaritan Hospital where James Reeb was initially treated lies abandoned. The historic Brown Chapel had beautiful stained glass windows with Jewish and Christian symbols inside. The “No Hand Guns” allowed decal on the front entrances made me angry. The complex family dynamics of a 1960s Selma family was brilliantly portrayed in the dramatic reading of Night Blooms. One of the founders of Black Lives Matter articulated the struggle from a 20 something black woman’s perspective. Opal Tometti told us how difficult it was to prepare her remarks the night before because of the shooting of Anthony Robinson in Wisconsin. Rev Barber, NC NAACP President described the criteria for Forward Together as morally just and constitutionally defensible. Rev. Rob Hardies, Senior Minister of All Souls Church in DC, who weekly preaches from the pulpit Rev Reeb used 50 years ago, described the James Reeb Voting Rights Project. For one component, more than 100 members of All Souls church went to NC and worked with the North Carolina UU congregations to get people registered and from DC members called over 10,000 voters. Rev. Jay Leach, minister of UU Church of Charlotte said that Rev. Barber expended huge amounts of political capital within the African American community to work for the passage of the marriage equality by saying,” I am tired of people hating on each other.”
The heartbreak and fear in the white grandfather’s voice as he shared his fears for his biracial grandson’s safety if stopped by police officers brought me to tears. Nine busloads of UUs spent the morning at St Jude City near Montgomery, where 25,000 people joined the 300 marchers that had been granted permission to march from Selma for the last miles to Montgomery. Seeing Viola Liuzzo’s family at the memorial site along the highway moved m to tears again. Finally, arriving in Selma to waving and welcoming residents out on their porches with hundreds of UUs in yellow tee shirts and yellow clerical stoles who all gathered in a local park was more celebration than memorial service.
However nothing prepared me for turning the corner onto Broad St. A sea of humanity spread out before us and the infamous Pettus Bridge which sent chills down my spine. It was a remembrance and recognition of the progress made since Bloody Sunday, and a commitment to fight any efforts to turn back the clock, and an urgent call to renew our dedication to justice and equality in our country distilled into a single moment. Truly, a personal pilgrimage. I encourage you to explore the Living Legacy Project videos and the resources available from the UUA, read Forward Together, take a living legacy pilgrimage tour, and work for voter rights in PA. Systemic changes are needed in our state and nation and each of us has a role to play. After all my tears and goose bumps the fierce urgency of now calls me and you to action.
Selma Awakening Part Two by Irene Friedrichs
I went to Selma because I wanted to be a part of this historical celebration – to go back to a time that I remembered vividly from childhood. With my love of history, getting an opportunity to “act out” an event was an exciting and intriguing prospect. I am still continuing to process what actually happened to me during the four days we spent in Birmingham and Selma. The experience of walking the same path of those brave souls 50 years ago was so much richer and deeper than what I expected. I felt the past and present colliding.
Growing up in a family where current events were routinely discussed each night at the dinner table, my thoughts about race relations in the U.S. began to form at a very early age. From my dad the messages were loud and clear: you don’t fight World Wars to protect our freedoms and withhold that freedom from some because of their race, and every child deserves a good education! If you wanted a relatively peaceful dining experience, you never mentioned George Wallace with dad in the room. Another pivotal event that happened during these formative years occurred during church one Sunday. As we were engaged in service a rather large black man entered our church – which in a rather homogenously white Hunterdon County, NJ was highly unusual. While all the other congregants diverted their eyes from the newcomer, my mother got right up and asked the man his name, introduced herself, and asked if there was something she could help him with. Later, my sister and I remember mom telling us that we always should live by the song we learned in Sunday school that Jesus loved all the children of the world. I thank my parents for those important early lessons.
I must admit that with the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy during my high school years (and less time at the kitchen table debating politics) that race seemed to have been resolved in America and I was on to all things anti-Vietnam War.
I remember, rather naively, thinking that with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the work of race relations was now done. Of course you must remember that there were no “races” in either my elementary or high school so my only frame of reference was TV. It was only later living outside my place of birth that I realized, going to college in the south, (there were 5 black women at Mary Washington my freshman year and all of them had roommates from the north) and moving to Washington, DC after that I began to witness prejudice and unequal access to opportunities. And then we moved to Maine.
My time in Birmingham at the conference and visiting Selma helped refocus my attention to race and race relations and gave me a clear vision of the work that still needs to be done. Standing with the crowd of people waiting to cross the bridge on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I was waiting for about 40 minutes to get onto the bridge behind a black man holding his 20 month old son who engaged in eye contact and playing peekaboo with me. I thought of my grandson James who is the same age, and I realized how this child in front of me was going to have to try 20X harder for everything in his life because of the color of his skin. In that moment, the past and the present collided. This thought made me cry, and as I think back and see this little boy’s face, my heart breaks. While there were no police and troopers waiting on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there is still so much justice work to be done to ensure we are all on equal footing. The work I do in the future will be for that little boy in his father’s arms and for all the children. When we ask “And how are the children?,” I hope that in the near future that we can say they are all, each and every one of them, doing well.
Selma Awakening Part Three by Rev. Peter Friedrichs
I hope you have a chance to watch and listen to Rev. Dr. Barber’s full speech to the convention. The link to the full video is in the order of service. It was billed as a “wake-up call” and that it surely was. It was one of many powerful moments during the four days we spent in Alabama last month.
We all know the names Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. We may even know the names Jimmy Lee Jackson and James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. Those last two, as a UU, you should know. Reeb was a Unitarian Universalist minister who was murdered in Selma and Viola Liuzzo was a UU who was murdered by the KKK as she was driving one of the marchers from Montgomery back to Selma after the march. While you might know all these names, I’m guessing you’ve never heard the name Hollis Watkins. I never did. Not until he told us his story. And, believe me, it was some story.
Hollis Watkins was the youngest of twelve children in his family. His father was a sharecropper in Mississippi in the middle of the last century. So, Hollis was just a couple generations removed from his family’s enslavement. In 1961, as a 19 year-old kid, Hollis became the first Mississippi student to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or “SNCC,” and he started working on voting rights. In Mississippi. In 1961. He was 19. Do you remember what you were doing when you were 19? I do, and it wasn’t anything like that.
Mr. Watkins told us what it was like to be working for voting rights in Mississippi in the early ‘60’s. He told us of being chased by the KKK and saved by the appearance of a dirt road through a cornfield, where he could hide from the lynch mob. He told us about the time he was in jail, and the jailer came in and told him he was free to go. And how he knew it was a trick and that if he’d walked out that door, he’d have been shot in the back for trying to escape. He told us about having a hangman’s noose waved in his face. By the police. He told us how, once when he was in jail, the cops sent a white woman into the cellblock to try and show him bruises on her body, saying she’d been beat up by the police. He knew this was another trick, so he kept his face to the cell wall until she left. He outsmarted them all. And he told us how God had told him he would never be killed doing civil rights work. How his deep, deep faith kept him going through all the threats to his life.
I wondered what had happened in his life that led him to dedicate his life to the fight for civil rights. Did he see a white man spit on his sister when he was little? Did he have a brother who was lynched? I asked him, and he told me that he always remembered the time, when he was working in the fields with his daddy – he wasn’t more than 8 or 9 years old – and his daddy told him that when you see a wrong, you’ve got to do what you can to right it. That was it. Nothing more dramatic or traumatic than that. It sounds like a scene out of The Grapes of Wrath or something, but it was this simple statement that created the Hollis Watkins who stood before us more than half a century later. How many of us received that same message from our own fathers, or mothers, or teachers when we were growing up? And how many of us took it to heart like Hollis Watkins did?
Another thing about Hollis Watkins was that, after everyone left Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia and South Carolina, after the Unitarian Universalist ministers and church members went back home, after the Freedom Riders stopped riding, after the bus boycott and the march to Montgomery ended, after all the news cameras and the reporters had left the South, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after victory was declared and everyone else went home, Hollis Watkins didn’t fold up his tent and put away his signs. No. He kept on fighting the fight. He looked around to see what still needed to be done, and he did it. And what he did was to start a school to train new leaders. It’s called “Southern Echo,” and it’s still around today, still helping to mold young people into effective civic leaders who can serve on local school boards and town councils and other positions in local and state government. It took him 20 years – 20 years! –to take Southern Echo from the seed of an idea into reality, but he did it. Hollis Watkins has spent his entire adult life working to right the wrongs of bigotry, racism, and hatred. Forget Superman and Batman and Neil Armstrong and JFK. I have a new hero. And his name is Hollis Watkins. After he was done speaking to us, I just had to go up and shake his hand. Truth be told, I was hoping that just a little bit of his courage and his commitment would rub off on me.
We remember the Kings and the Kennedys. We remember the Reebs and the Jacksons. We remember the names of the leaders and we remember the names of the martyrs. As we should. And we never know the names of the Watkins’s. Or the countless other foot soldiers who simply showed up because they knew they had to. We like to remind ourselves of that quote that originally came from Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and that has been adopted by everyone from Martin Luther King to President Obama: “The moral arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This statement gives us hope. It motivates us to keep on keeping on. And I’ve always thought that each of us has the power to bend that arc just a little bit more. If we all put our weight on it, maybe, just maybe, we’ll see some real progress. In our own lifetimes.
The lasting lesson of my trip to Selma – a Selma that today is one of the poorest communities in our nation, with unemployment at twice the rate of the rest of Alabama, which ranks somewhere near the bottom as a state itself – what has stayed with me since I crossed that bridge and stood where so much blood was spilled, is that we will likely never see the impact of our work for justice. We won’t see that arc bend. And, more importantly, that that can’t stop us. You see, I’m a results-oriented person. I know that comes as a huge shock to you all, knowing me as you do. But outcomes are not what this work is about. Yes, we want cops to stop murdering young black men in the street. Yes, we want to live in a society where black lives do, in fact, matter. Yes, we want to see a day where all people are judged only by the content of their character. But we won’t. That’s the truth of it. The simple, hard truth. But what Hollis Watkins has taught me is that that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that we won’t reap the fruits of our labors. It doesn’t matter that a newer Jim Crow will probably replace the New Jim Crow we see today. It doesn’t matter that we have new names to know, new martyrs to rally around, it seems, almost every day. The march we march won’t be the next Selma. The thing we do won’t be the great hinge on which history pivots. Our names will never be known and we won’t ever see the difference we make. And that’s not the point. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that we do what we can. That we make the choice not to throw up our hands and say it’s all futile, but to put our shoulder to the wheel and try to roll it forward just a little bit. It’s our job to build the bridges, even though we won’t get across that divide and into the promised land in our lifetime. Hollis Watkins has done it. And we can too.