Forty- three years later, for the first time, I ventured into the deep South. I participated in the Unitarian Universalist Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage bus tour. We were a diverse group, in an early- twenty- first- century Unitarian Universalist way: four families, more seniors than young adults, about equal numbers of female and male ministers, about a quarter of us identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, another quarter as people of color (including one Latina), and one Canadian. The tour also included Bill Sinkford, the first African- American president of the UUA, and three veterans of Selma: Charles Blackburn, Gordon Gibson, and Clark Olsen. As we traversed Alabama and Mississippi, terror gripped me. I knew the feeling was old and understood that it was based in what I had read and imagined, and what I had seen on television in the 1950s and ’60s.
Before that trip my total experience in the South had amounted to a few days in Atlanta in 1969 and 1985. The South had changed; but it didn’t matter. Fear ruled me. I felt it in my gut and in the shallowness of my breath. I was hypervigilant, no matter how firmly I told myself I was overreacting. What comfort I found, I found in the companionship of the others on the journey. On the fourth day of the pilgrimage, we arrived in Selma, Alabama, the epicenter of events that, in addition to reshaping American history, had haunted me. The feelings I had experienced so long ago had faded, but they had not gone away or been forgotten. On the way, we stopped in Marion and visited the memorial to Jimmie Lee Jackson. Seeing the gravestone pockmarked with bullet holes only deepened my anxiety.
Before moving on to the site on Route 80 where Viola Liuzzo was shot and where her Oldsmobile careened off the highway, we spent the night in Selma. We ate in Walker’s Café, sitting at those same tiny tables. We strolled up the street with Clark Olsen to the place where James Reeb, Orloff Miller, and he had been bludgeoned. The following day, I stood in front of Brown Chapel AME waiting for our bus. The Carver Homes, simple red- brick row houses, were across the street, and I tried to imagine what it had been like in March 1965. I saw clusters of people scattered around the projects, and others streaming in and out of the chapel: black folks guiding their comrades in arms into their homes, providing places to sleep, food to eat, and thanks. I imagined how out of the ordinary it was for all of them, black and white, to live and link arms together, to form lines and find in one another the courage to meet phalanxes of police with only prayers, songs, and faith. I imagined the Selma Wall, where the interminable standoff took place. For me that empty street was full.
A low rumble in the distance interrupted my musing. I turned, and, looking down the street, I saw a few motorcycles. The rumble grew as more motorcycles came around the corner. And more. And more. The rumble became a roar. As they drew nearer I could distinguish the three leaders. They were police officer s two white, one black. Behind them, the entire block was filled with motorcycles. The ground trembled. The roar was deafening, even with their power bridled. The riders cruised up to the chapel, cut their engines, and dismounted. What bikes! BMW Roadmasters. Honda Gold Wings. Harley- Davidsons. Chrome shiny as a mirror. A few with sidecars. The leather- clad riders headed into Brown Chapel AME, now a shrine to the civil rights movement. As they tromped by I could see the insignia on the back of their leather jackets: “Buffalo Soldiers.” Over two hundred of them, from all across America— all of them were black and, like us, they had come to pay homage.
I understood Archibald MacLeish’s poem: They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave. In 1965 no one who lived in Selma and no one who went to Selma could have imagined this sight. The protesters thought the struggle was about gaining the right to vote. It was that, and much more. That moral battle was a continuation of the American Revolution, a yet unfinished revolution. The victory at Selma served as the catalyst of an economic and political revolution that led to an African American becoming president of the United States. King delivered many biblical phrases that held up a vision of freedom and justice. But even from the mountaintop, it was impossible to foretell that the vision would be fulfilled like this. Unitarian Universalists did not know that Selma would become a pivotal moment in their own history. In the past, our religious forebears had stood on the brink of making a difference in racial justice, and had wavered. But not this time. Called, sent, drawn, or compelled, hundreds responded.
When they left there were two UU martyrs in their hearts and there was conviction in their stride. They had been changed in ways their lives would reveal but which words could never quite capture. It is not possible, nor necessary, to know the outcome of our actions; therefore we act in faith. Faith asks not that we succeed, but that we try. We try because we yearn to live out our values. Conscience urges us on, for we have dreamed of a better, more just tomorrow. We care; therefore, we act. In acting, we risk having our hearts broken a thousand times; therefore, we are sustained by hope. That is the price those who cleared the way for us accepted. It is what living fully, deeply, and with integrity demands.
The second half of the second verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the African- American national anthem, begins, “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.” That is the way our spiritual ancestors came. The way we follow will be different, and its outcome undreamed of. But, just as it did for our forebears, the way will require of us courage, sacrifice, and tears.
-- Mark D. Morrison-Reed
Toronto, Ontario, Canada