Monday, February 16, 2009

The Concerned White Citizens of Alabama

It's Monday morning and I'm in Montgomery, Alabama.

One of the unexpected pleasures of this pilgrimage is Rev. Charles Blackburn, who served our Huntsville, Alabama congregation from 1964-1966. Charles and his partner Glen live in Baltimore now. This morning's post is from Charles, followed by some commentary from me.

The Concerned White Citizens of Alabama
the Rev. Charles Blackburn, Minister, UU Church of Huntsville, AL 1964-1966

I want to tell you about a little-known footnote to the Selma Voting Rights Movement. On March 6, 1965, the day before Bloody Sunday, the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama demonstrated in front of the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma. The significance of that march was that it was the first time in the history of Southern Alabama that white citizens of Alabama had demonstrated in support of black civil rights.

The moving force behind this organization was the Rev. Joseph Elwanger, a white Lutheran minister of a black Lutheran church in Birmingham and a native of Selma. Because of his support of black rights, he was vilified by his bishop and scorned by his white ministerial colleagues.

I was asked to recruit some participants from Huntsville and was able to find 15 members of my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Huntsville, who were willing to march. When we assembled in Selma there were 72 of us, 36 were Unitarian Universalists from the Birmingham and Huntsville churches and the Tuscaloosa fellowship.

Since we did not have a parade permit we had to maintain 30 feet between each rack of four people, making us feel quite vulnerable. As we turned the corner onto Lauderdale Street where the courthouse was located, we were confronted by a mob of rednecks shouting obscenities and wielding clubs, chains and pipes. We were nearly paralyzed with fear. Suddenly a Nazi-party skinhead ran toward us menacingly. Amazingly, he was arrested by Public Safety Commissioner William Baker. Next a car appeared in front of us belching acrid smoke. The driver was also arrested. Then Rev. Elwanger’s bishop confronted Elwanger and accused him of being a traitor to his parents, his high school, his city, and his church.

As Rev. Elwanger read the prepared Statement of the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama, the catcalls of the rednecks drowned him out. The mob began singing “Dixie.” In response, we began, tentatively, to sing “America the Beautiful” and to move forward again. At that moment a large group of black supporters began singing “We Shall Overcome.” Their signing inspired us to continue. The cacophony was astonishing.

I am convinced that we would have been bludgeoned had Sherriff Jimmy Clark been in charge of security that day as he was on Bloody Sunday. Instead Baker whispered to us to disperse quickly and return to the Knox Reformed Presbyterian Church by a different route. After we reassembled at the church, the fiery James Bevel said that when we first appeared in view he shouted, “Damn, the Kingdom’s coming!” Rev. C.T. Vivian then praised us as well but ended his remarks with the admonition, “But where have you been?”

"But where have you been?" Unitarian Universalists point with pride to the time when hundreds of ministers came to Selma, when the UUA Board of Trustees recessed, traveled from Boston to Selma, and reconvened the Board meeting in Selma to stand with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A beautiful memorial to Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, and James Reeb hangs on the wall of the second floor chapel at 25 Beacon Street, the room the board meets in three times a year. We have a shrine to remind us that the dream is not yet fulfilled.

"But where have you been?" We are politically active lovers of democracy. We have elected an African American President of the UUA. We worked hard -- many of us -- to do the same for the entire country. There is progress, and cause for hope, and the dream is not yet fulfilled.

"But where have you been?" Spend a few observant moments in Selma and you know that the dream is not yet fulfilled. Open your eyes in the place you call home. Selma is not merely a town in Alabama, or a point in American history. Selma is in Michigan and Massachusetts, in South Carolina and California, New York and Maryland. Selma is each time and every location where Unitarian Universalists heard the call for people of goodwill to assemble and bear witness. Selma is every temporal geography in which we answered that call...and later retreated in confusion or fear or fatigue.

"But where have you been?" The question echoes over the decades. How will we answer?


  1. I am researching Jewish Women Activists during the Civil Rights era. Several of the ladies that I am going to profile were part of Rev. Ellwanger's Concerned White Citizens of Alabama. I am attempting to locate any photographs of the white march in Selma on March 6, 1965. Do you happen to know if any exist?
    Kaye Nail