On the fourth day of the Living Legacy Pilgrimage, after a visit to the site where Rev. James Reeb was killed, a tour of Selma and a stop at the National Voting Rights Museum, participants on the pilgrimage took a silent, meditative walk across the Edmund Pettis Bridge where civil rights marchers were attacked and beaten by police on what is commonly known as Bloody Sunday. It was seeing this horrific event on TV sets around the world that prompted the first wave of Unitarian Universalist ministers, including Rev. Reeb, Rev. Orloff Miller, and Rev. Clark Olsen to go to Selma. Rev. Olsen walked with us from what was Walker’s Café, the site of their last meal, down the block to the place where a group of segregationists attacked them, striking Rev. Reeb on the head with a bat, a blow that ended his life 36 hours later.
Later in the day, with these and other images fresh in our hearts, we gathered together to talk about the meaning of Selma to Unitarian Universalists’ today. How do we move from a place where the answer to a question about a congregation’s social justice committee is “we marched in Selma” to an answer that says, because we marched in Selma in the 60s, we are involved in this work today.” Janice Marie Johnson, one of the Pilgrimage’s planning team members, led the discussion by asking us to identify, in a word, our appreciations from this experience. We gave voice to feelings such as “cathartic,” “calling,” “rootedness,” “stirring,” and “empowerment” as we reflected on the day. Johnson then pressed us to speak our affirmations.
To this question, we expressed our desire to “keep the story alive”, “a renewed commitment to social justice and anti-racism work,” “recognition of the importance of everyone’s journey,” and “a faith that we can be partners and allies in the ongoing struggle.” Rev. Olsen responded, “I’ve wanted my experience to mean more than telling and my story. I’m hopeful that [as a result of our commitments from this journey] it might be.” The Rev. Hope Johnson, another of the Pilgrimage’s planning team, spoke about how in the town of Selma, “I can tell people that I am a Unitarian Universalist and they know who I am. I’m challenged to know what to do with that.”
After speaking together in the large group, we broke up into small groups to discuss our vision for the future. We were asked to consider, “How might we find ourselves in the story of Selma as we go forward into the future? Each group reported back with their visions for how we might say, “we Unitarian Universalist were in Selma, to we are in Selma and this is what we are doing.” A consistent theme emerged that we have to enter into any work as true partners of the people in the local communities we want to serve and that these partnerships have to be real and they have to last. We have to listen to the needs without imposing our values on what we are hearing. We talked about being intentional in our planning so that we can be the best partners we can be.
A couple of the groups suggested a new model for youth who are coming of age that, in addition to or maybe even instead of a trip to UUA Headquarters in Boston, we might have trips to Selma so they can see their faith in action. And it was agreed that whatever we do, first and foremost, we have to focus on building, developing and deepening relationships with the local people.
Members of the planning team will take all the ideas that were spoken today and provide participants with a report that will help to guide us on our next steps to our “living legacy” of Selma and the Civil Rights Movement. Today, after attending church at Brown Chapel AME Church where Rev. William Sinkford will speak, the pilgrimage moves on to Mississippi.
Annette Marquis serves as the District Executive for the Thomas Jefferson district and a member of the planning team for the Living Legacy Pilgrimage.