My friend Tony thinks that I am brave. He has said that a couple of times about me in group settings; dropped this into the conversation at places where it didn’t seem right to stop the flow and find out why on earth he thought that.
So I emailed him a few weeks back and asked him. I said I was going to be speaking this morning about living in the home of the brave and talking about brave people, so it would be helpful, definition-wise. Even if that might seem to some to be an exercise in ego.
So he responded.
He said he thought I was willing to be honest with myself, to pose uncomfortable questions. That I was willing to risk change, with significant shifts in direction, vocationally especially. Lastly, he said I had a bravery flowing from righteous indignation. When something really grabs you, he said, you seem willing to throw all caution to the wind and do what your passion dictates, irrespective of potential consequences.
Like being mouthy and then constantly regretting it, I thought.
Since I think being brave is a virtue, I am grateful for his perception, but I mostly can’t go with his notions about me. Brave is not a word one would use for a 9-year-old girl who gets herself part way up a tree and is howlingly terrified to come back down, begging her brothers to go up and fetch her. Brave is not the word one would use for a teenager and then adult who hates all roller coasters and water park rides, screams during lightening storms, and relates to her dog, who quivers under the covers at the first clap of thunder.
Brave is not even a word I would apply to some of the scenes in my life where I might have looked brave. The time I looked out our dining room window and saw a man beating his dog with a large piece of board, ran into the street and got between them. Or waded right into a neighborhood fight among some middle school kids, figuring it takes a village to raise children, even ones a foot taller than me.
Why was that not brave? Because by some common understandings of bravery, you have to know what you are doing has risks involved, and you have to have been afraid of the possible consequences, fought through this fear, and gone ahead anyway. I can honestly say that I hadn’t given a thought to whether what I was doing might be risky, just went on ahead and let my body and my mouth do their work.
British Humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling has written that courage — which is a synonym for bravery — can only be felt by those who are afraid. If a man is truly fearless as he leaps over the enemy parapet or hurls himself into a rugby tackle (a metaphor I cannot relate to in the slightest), he is not courageous, Grayling says. Because most people fail to recognize this simple fact, the true quantum of heroism in the world goes unrecognized and therefore unrewarded. The quaking public speaker, the trembling amateur actor, the nervous hospital patient submitting herself to needles and scalpels, are all manifesting courage, are all showing everyday bravery.
He reminds us that ordinary life evokes more extraordinary courage than combat or adventure because it bears a hundred times over the possibility of grief, illness, disappointment, pain, struggle, poverty, loss, terror, and headache. To lie sleepless with pain at night, he says in example, yet wake every morning, get up, and carry on as best one can, is an act of immense personal bravery.
Recognizing this, and encouraging each of you to know this about yourself, I want to talk today about brave people, men and women, whose public acts of bravery helped change the society they lived in, whether they truly understood that what they were doing would have such tragic and such momentous consequences.
The Prophet Isaiah, whose words I read this morning urging us to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to all the prisoners, was a very real man who represented a vision that emerged in the Jerusalem of the 8th and 7th century BCE of absolute justice, peace, and spiritual awareness. Isaiah, who lived during the reigns of four Kings of Judah, was witness to one of the most turbulent periods of its history, politically and religiously.
Although he was part of the aristocracy and had free access to the palace and to members of the royal house, he preferred to speak from the margins — and against unchecked power and unholy national alliances. Choosing instead to be an outspoken mouthpiece of the common people, rejecting common rituals like animal sacrifice and holiday fasting, choosing instead to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. While he did live a long life, he was indeed eventually imprisoned and martyred by an Assyrian king who was not happy with the universalism, the one God, in whose name Isaiah had preached his radical social reforms.
We don’t know from Hebrew scripture whether or not this man who stood at the gates of the city, who spoke truth to power, who railed against greed and complacency and injustice was afraid of where his prophetic words and his political actions might lead. I would imagine he was, and for that which he did and for that which he felt, he was truly brave.
Almost a year ago, last August, there was a march here in Atlanta commemorating the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Remembering those who marched before us, some who were beaten senseless, some who died, because no matter how peaceful they were, no matter how respectful they were, the sounds of feet tramping and voices lifted in freedom song, they stirred a hatred so deep and wild that they were met with clubs and bullets.
Ain’t nobody gonna turn me round, turn me round, turn me round, they sang on a March day in 1965 as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the way to Montgomery to protest voter discrimination against black people, especially in the Deep South. Selma, the county seat of Dallas County, was considered more progressive than other areas in that two percent of its black citizens had registered to vote by the 1960s.
For several years before, the Dallas County Voters League, assisted by the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee, continued to educate and register African Americans but the numbers were small and the obstacles deliberate and contemptuous.
There were questions asked them that were either so obscure about sections of the Alabama State Constitution, or so ludicrous, about the numbers of stars in the sky, that it was nearly impossible to pass the test to gain a vote.
Voter registration efforts proceeded anyway, with mass meetings, demonstrations, and finally plans to march to the state capitol in Montgomery to formally protest this shameless and shameful discrimination.
We’re gonna keep on marching to freedom land, those marchers chanted and sang as they made their way from their gathering point at Brown Chapel AME Church to the bridge where they were brutally attacked by state troopers with billy clubs and attack dogs. This pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement is remembered as Bloody Sunday.
Two days later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a second march but turned around at the point of confrontation on the bridge.
While this second march had been peaceful, there were deadly consequences for one of the religious leaders who had responded to Dr. King’s call for their support. Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister, a civil rights activist, member of the Southern Christian Leadership conference, father of four, who worked with poor people in Boston, Massachusetts, flew down.
He was joined by two other Unitarian ministers, Rev. Clark Olsen and Rev. Orloff Miller who decided to go to dinner in a simple meat-and-three café in a black neighborhood before joining King at a meeting at the AME church. After eating, they headed back to the church on what they thought to be a shorter route, one which passed through a tough white neighborhood.
As they neared a saloon, Rev. Olsen recalls, they saw some men watching them from across the street. One of them was carrying a club.
The men started towards the ministers.
Rev. Olsen remembers the two other ministers telling him to keep on walking as they had been taught in their non-violent training, not to resist if attacked but to fall to the ground covering their heads.
Olsen said that the men came up behind the ministers and he looked back just as one of them swung a club at Reeb, striking his head. The sound, Olsen says, was just awful.
Reeb collapsed. Olsen was caught and punched, his glasses sent flying. Then the attackers fled.
Reeb, by then mortally wounded, was examined by a black doctor and transported by ambulance to Birmingham where he died two days later of massive head injuries. His death is said to have spurred the introduction of the voting rights act in Congress just two days later.
In retrospect, Olsen says that it is part of the story of civil rights and the tragedy of civil rights that it was the death of a white minister that was the final impetus to the passage of the voting rights act. The death of any number of blacks (including Jimmie Lee Jackson shot two weeks earlier after he tried to protect his mother from being beaten) had not received anywhere the amount of attention that a white minister’s did.
Jackson almost surely must have been afraid, knowing what happened to men like him if they stood up against white men who held power over them.
When asked if he thought that James Reeb was a martyr, Clark Olsen has said yes, not because he knew he was going to be killed, but because he was going into the face of great danger. His life was sacrificed in a just cause. As was Jimmie Lee Jackson and all those others before and in the months and years after who were attacked and killed by those who hated what they stood for.
Who surely knew they were in danger, being black people taking on white people who were dead set on holding all the power over them. Who surely were brave.
There were four white men arrested for the death of Rev. Reeb. One of the attackers moved to Mississippi and didn’t show up and the judge disqualified the other on grounds of mental incompetence. The all-white male jury took only 90 minutes to find the other men not guilty. After hearing the verdict, the courtroom burst into applause. Duck Hoggle, one of the men acquitted and the only one still alive is a prosperous businessman with a restaurant and a car dealership.
While Reeb’s death and a third successful Selma-to-Montgomery March sped up the passage of a federal voting rights act to make illegal so many of the practices that states were using to deny or make difficult the act of casting a ballot, it did not end the bloodshed around civil rights.
Unitarian Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a housewife and mother from Detroit, drove alone to Alabama to help with the Selma voting rights activities after seeing televised footage of the Bloody Sunday attack. She was driving back to Montgomery with a young black civil rights activist to pick up some stranded marchers when she was ambushed, shot, and killed by what in those days was called an action team or missionary squad of four Birmingham Klansmen, including a member who was an FBI informant. The day before she was murdered, she had said she had the feeling someone would die.
July 9th last year, 40 years to the day that the Voting Rights Act was passed, I boarded a bus rented by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee to transport participants in the second Freedom Summer tour and work camp to historic civil rights sites in the South.
My role was as chaplain and minister in residence, helping to frame what we were seeing and re-living in terms of our liberal faith tradition and that of the African American Christian churches and their members who took the leadership and most of the risks, particularly a theology of liberation.
A theology centered on a God whose presence is felt in the loosing of the fetters of injustice.
No easy task with young people who carry virtually no historic memory of the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, or any of those marker events of my Boomer childhood. What moments, I have wondered, of the re-creation of the civil rights story in the deep South, will they remember and carry with them into their own histories?
We began in Atlanta with visits to the King Center and Sweet Auburn Avenue and talks with members of the UU Atlanta Congregation who had either grown up in the South during the movement or are currently involved in racial justice and human rights. We traveled to Montgomery to see the Civil Rights Memorial outside the heavily guarded Southern Poverty Law Center, and then on to Selma where we visited the Brown AME Church, the small voting rights museum, marched on the Pettus Bridge, ate at the restaurant where James Reeb ate the last night of his life, and stood on the corner where he was fatally clubbed.
Silently walking the bridge that sweltering July afternoon was moving, but more gripping was an experience I had that evening when I went out in search of snack foods with several of my service committee colleagues and took a wrong turn down a dark country road. For just a few moments on that strange rural highway I felt a kind of sympathetic fear, for all those workers for civil rights who must have been terribly afraid and wonderfully brave.
Work remains, of course, in securing basic civil rights, even the voting rights we thought were taken care of more as the result of so much sacrifice four decades ago. The Voting Rights Act now needs to be reauthorized — and there have been moves to gut significant portions of it. Here in Georgia, the new voter ID law threatens to disenfranchise more than a half million registered voters, including a third of the senior African American voters who don’t have a driver’s license or state-issued card.
But when I think of the through-line of bravery from Selma to 2006, I first see the women and men who work in family planning clinics, feminist women’s health clinics, abortion clinics as having taken up the mantle of fear and courage in the name of reproductive justice.
Despite the fact that Roe vs. Wade court protections for women needing and seeking these services, 87 percent of counties in the United States do not have an abortion provider. In the entire state of Mississippi one remains, with plans in the works for anti-choice leaders from across the country to conduct a full-scale series of protests and actions against the Jackson Women’s Health Organization the week of July 15.
From the website of the so-called Operation Save America comes the treat to “storm the gates of hell in the strong name of Jesus Christ. Little did any of us know (the site proclaims) as we ran to the roar to help those devastated by Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and Louisiana, that God was preparing us to return to Mississippi to deal with an even more deadly foe — abortion.”
The clinic is discouraging pro-choice activists from counter-picketing, which only disturbs and confuses the women patients, and asking instead for demonstrations off-site and contributions to pay for the most sophisticated security available.
Anecdotally and statistically, there has been an increase in these sorts of threats of intimidation and violence. We don’t have to travel to or read about Mississippi, just cross the street to the Feminist Women’s Health Center to learn about the escalation, maybe because it’s an election year, says the young clinic manager, maybe just the general anxiety in the country right now. Every day her staff and the patients show up, despite ugly phone calls and picketers and a climate of danger.
And that’s what finally reminded me of the time I might have actually been brave, if brave means knowing fear, passing through it, and acting for justice. It was when I was as young as the clinic worker I recently spoke with and working for a women’s health organization that offered abortion services at five sites in seven counties. Spending weekends with a pager in my belt loop as I took my children to their rounds of sports and classes, hoping there would not be a deluge of angry faced pickets, or a bomb threat, or worse.
It was when I went to work, even after my kids were shouted at, and blood was thrown, and even after my car was torched, perhaps randomly, perhaps not.
Tony, that’s really the time that I took the risk, knowingly, for righteousness sake.
A colleague remarked this week that being provocative in the name of liberation and justice was fine so long as one wasn’t foolhardy. I said I disagreed. I recalled something the late minister, freedom rider, peace activist William Sloane Coffin said. That it’s too bad that one has to conceive of sports as being the only arena where risks are, for all of life is a risk exercise. That’s the only way to live more freely.
May you find ways, may we find ways as a prophetic faith community, to be afraid, to overcome, to be truly brave.