Reflections at the end of our pilgrimage
The 2009 Living Legacy Pilgrimage is over now and all of us have returned to our communities, our families, and our congregations. But the impact of this experience is embedded deep in our souls in a way that no photographs or notes or memories could ever summon. To say that we were changed by the experience seems trite considering what people risked, what those who lived the Civil Rights Movement sacrificed to secure their freedom, a freedom that had ostensibly been granted to them 100 years earlier.
In the course of our journey, we visited two Unitarian Universalist congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Birmingham and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery (UUFM). Both congregations greeted us as family who had come home for a visit after too long an absence. They showered us with true Southern hospitality, fed us home-cooked meals, and did everything they could do to make us comfortable. But most importantly, they shared the richness of their histories, their involvement in the Movement, and their courageous people. In both cases, I was struck with how vibrant the congregations are today and how poised they still are to represent UU values in the world.
In fact, in Montgomery, we actually saw the congregation in action as we attended a rally on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol to support the inclusion of sexual orientation in the state’s hate crime statute. The Reverend Paul Britner, minister of UUFM, helped organize and MC the event and the UUFM choir led the protestors in singing, “Love Will Guide Us.” It is clear that the fight for civil rights is not over and that wherever we are, UUs are called to lead in these efforts. I was proud to be a UU that day. I was proud to be standing on the same steps where George Wallace refused to allow Martin Luther King to stand at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march because he didn’t want King speaking from the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederate States. I was proud to sharing the day with Montgomery UUs who were proving that our civil rights legacy is still living and breathing in the hearts and minds of today’s UUs.
Of all the questions that this pilgrimage generated in me, I continue to be most challenged by what it meant to organize an entire social change movement based on non-violence resistance that I began to wonder if I could have done what the people in the civil rights movement did.
Imagine that you are in a training session designed to prepare you to participate in a protest march. You spend an entire weekend learning about non-violence and non-violent resistance techniques. But this training is not all talk. Throughout much of the weekend you are being badgered, yelled at, called names, pushed, and even hit, and your job is to not react -- to let yourself be verbally and even physically abused and just take it, to not defend yourself, to not run away, to just take it. By the end of the training, it’s decided whether you have what it takes to be in the march. For you see, being a marcher in the Movement is a high honor. If it becomes clear that you can’t respond non-violently, you are placed in a support role and are not given the honor of marching.
As I heard these stories, I again asked myself, could I do it? Could I place myself in that level of danger? Could I risk my life for something, even if it was something I believed in as strongly as I believe in civil rights?
On March 7, 1965, 600 of these trained marchers left Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, walked through town and began to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to the state capital in Montgomery. When they reached the crest of the bridge and could see what was ahead of them on the other side, they report that all they saw was a sea of blue. Police had formed a solid line almost a block away from the end of the bridge. The marchers kept moving forward, down the other side of the bridge, and directly toward the sea of blue. When they got within hearing distance, they were told to turn back. Before the marchers even had a chance to respond, the police, some on horseback, viciously attacked. The marchers were beaten back with billy clubs, tear gas, and bull whips. This event, referred to as Bloody Sunday, horrified the nation as photographs and video were shown on the Sunday evening news.
Two days later, Martin Luther-King led a second march across that same bridge. Again they were told to turn back and Rev. King asked if they could pray first. The marchers then got down on their knees right in the middle of the street and prayed. Then King stood up, turned the march around and went back to Brown Chapel. Think about that for a moment. Only two days before, hundreds of people, neighbors, friends, and family members, were beaten, many seriously injured, at this same spot, doing this same thing, by these same police officers. What kind of courage did it take to get down on their knees and pray?
Could I do that? I ask myself.
I would like to think that I would have gone to Selma when Dr. King called Dana Greeley, the president of the UUA, and asked for our help. I would like to think I would have gone. But how do I put myself out there today? What risks do I take today to further the cause of civil and human rights? The struggle is not over. Do I have what it takes?
We UU’s have an incredibly legacy of courage, strength, fortitude, and commitment in the struggle for human rights. We have every right to be proud of this legacy. But we cannot rest there. We cannot live on our legacy. We have to find ways to keep our legacy alive by living lives today that honor these heroes of our faith. Somewhere we have to find the courage to step out of our comfortable lives, out of our safe congregations, and take the risks we need to take to move us closer to the world we want to create. It will not happen if we sit idly by. These people knew that. They put their lives on the line to make their dreams of a brighter future see the light of day.
I pray today that I will be ready when I am called. And I’m going to need you there with me. Will you be ready?