I came to Birmingham and Selma last March to commemorate the events of March 1965, and to be reminded of why it is that racial justice is so crucial. I came home rededicated and recommitted to doing whatever I can to help move us forward as a country to realizing that Black Lives Matter, and that there is much work still left to be done to bring about the equality we UUs believe in so completely.
I’d already been to Birmingham and Selma — in 2013, I joined the UU Living Legacy Pilgrimage to learn about our UU involvement in the Civil Rights movement in the south. It was a transformational experience, with us learning from veterans of the Civil Rights movement — those who had been arrested, those who transported others during the bus boycott, those White clergy who served in African American congregations, children of the martyrs, and more. It helped me understand more deeply the cost of hard won freedom.
The conference of commemoration and recommitment in March was more than I had imagined. We heard from Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of the leaders in Selma 50 years ago; Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP; Opal Tometi, one of the founders of #BlackLivesMatter movement. We had a keynote from Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, who helped us understand what is needed going forward.
In the midst of all the incredible workshops, worship and presentation, there were two parts of the conference that stood out: honoring the families of the Selma martyrs, and marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Honoring the families of the Martyrs. In 1965, the March from Selma to Montgomery began in order to honor and recognize the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of police. Trying to protect his grandfather and mother, Jackson was shot at point blank range. In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, Rev. James Reeb heeded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, call to come to Selma and was attacked and later died from the beating he received. Lay woman Viola Liuzzo from our Detroit congregation came, marched all the way to Montgomery, and then was ambushed and killed by the Ku Klux Klan as she drove marchers back to Selma. Jackson’s sister, Liuzzo’s daughters, and the entire Reeb clan (15+ strong) came to the conference and were awarded Courageous Love awards. These family members, who gave so much, thanked us for remembering their families. Jackson’s sister said she remember her mother receiving funds from the UUA every month to help her out, and the Liuzzo daughters spoke about how when everyone else had forgotten their mother, and the FBI smeared her, UU members and congregations always remembered and honored her. As I thought of their sacrifices in the loss of their loved ones, it seemed unbelievable that they were thanking us for the awards. Tears streamed down my face, and those of the people standing near me.
Marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When I had participated in the Pilgrimage, we walked silently across the bridge, imagining what it must have been like on that March morning. This time, there was no silence. Instead, it was a loud celebration of those who did not say no, who did not turn back. Thousands upon thousands of people filled the streets around the Bridge, and made the trek over. It took an hour to walk the four blocks to the bridge and over, and all along the route we saw people holding signs celebrating the three martyrs — Jackson, Reeb and Liuzzo. Films were being shown, worship services were held. Thousands and thousands of people from all walks of life, all colors, all religious beliefs. I walked the Bridge in my clerical shirt, with my Black Lives Matter button on, and was surprised how many people wanted pictures of this aging white woman — what had I done, other than shown up? I still don’t know, but the sense of being there, with so many Standing on the Side of Love yellow shirts all across the Bridge—it gave me hope that one day we might be able to live out the dreams of which King preached.
It’s so hard to capture in words all that happened, and how I’ve been transformed, recommitted to the work. You can get a sense of it, though, by taking time to watch the videos of the presentations: you can find them at http://www.uulivinglegacy.org/workshop-and-special-videos.html. But I can tell you this. Every day since, I’ve continued to wear my Black Lives Matter button, and to remind myself that the work of racial justice is not yet complete. When I put it on every morning, I recommit myself to continue to be open to where it is that I can make a difference, what I may be able to do to help continue to bend the arc of justice closer to the earth. We have come so far, and yet there is so much more left to do.