Sometimes you just have to march.
The tramp, tramp, tramping of marching feet sends a vibration across the body politic and people have to listen, civil rights leader and black clergy member Rev. Joseph Lowery tells us.
This man should know. He has been marching since he was a young man to advance racial equality, social justice, and human rights:
It’s a way to express moral concerns without insulting people. It’s positive, non-violent, and moving. To see hundreds of thousands of people in solidarity has to have an impact, even on hardened hearts.
So I got up yesterday morning and I put on a T-shirt with the words “Unitarian Universalist” on it, and put on sunscreen, and made sure I had water, and boarded a MARTA train for the place in downtown Atlanta where I was to meet up with others from our faith community to begin another march. One of memory and hope. A march to commemorate the passage of the Voting Rights Act 40 years ago this summer.
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.
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.
In his eulogy, Dr. Martin Luther King said naturally we are compelled to ask the question, Who Killed James Reeb? The answer is simple and rather limited when we think of the who. He was murdered by a few sick, demented, and misguided men, who have the strange notion that you express dissent through murder. But, King went on, he was also murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows… by the irrelevancy of the church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a tailgate rather than a head light… by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.
So, King said, we must be concerned not just with who murdered him, but the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murder.
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 another 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.
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 March after seeing televised footage of the Bloody Sunday attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She was driving back to Selma with a black civil rights marcher when she was shot and killed by a Klansman (now known to be an FBI informant). She died on March 26, 1965.
All that long hot summer of 1965, forty years ago, there were more beatings and murders, including the death of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminary student who had gone to Alabama to help with black voter registration in Lowndes County, arrested in a demonstration, suddenly released, and shot to death by a deputy sheriff.
July 9th of this 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 more than 60 participants in the second Freedom Summer tour and work camp to historic civil rights sites in the South. It was intergenerational, with more than 40 young people ages 14 to 20, many of them from Coming of Age programs across the country. My role was as chaplain and minister in residence, helping to frame what we seeing and re-living in terms of our liberal faith tradition, and particularly a theology of liberation. A theology centered on a God whose presence is felt in the loosing of the fetters of injustice and in the gaining of freedom.
No easy task with young people who are not yet able to think in terms of long-term consequences and 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 these young people 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 UUSC friends 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 risked their lives and lost their lives in places like this.
Our bus journey took us on back roads to Birmingham, where we visited the park where snarling dogs and hoses had been used on youth and children, to 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls had died in a cowardly bombing.
But it was Selma, with its contrast of its lush pastoral setting, its elegant homes, and evil bloody legacy that has stayed with me, calling me to action. Selma, whose town banner declares it is the place where history meets hospitality.
After our tour ended, our work for justice began. And the main task was to register people to vote in poor neighborhoods in South Atlanta, in the shadow of Turner Ball field and the former site of the 1994 Olympics. The weather was stormy and the registration results disappointing, but it was clear that this is still the civil rights issue with much left to do.
Everywhere we went on our civil rights journey we were reminded of how much human sacrifice had gone into securing the right to cast a ballot, and how much is at stake for the black and other historically disadvantaged communities should the Voting Rights Act not be protected.
Sometimes you have to march, whether or not the weather cooperates, whether or not your feet and back hurt, whether or not there is anyone watching. The weather was muggy yesterday, and the wait for the start of the March to Keep the Vote, to remember the Voting Rights Act passage 40 years ago and to insure the reauthorization of some crucial and controversial sections, was long and frustrating. There was almost no singing and lots of cell phones ringing, but still it was something to see, something to be part of.
Estimates will range from low to exaggerated, but most likely there were more than 18,000 people of all ages, from babes in strollers to one elderly black woman clipping along with her walker. There were those who lived through the darkest era in our history, to those who are not so interested in how we got here as in keeping on. Thousands thronged the streets with their signs and t-shirts — lift up your voice and vote — rock the vote.
The re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2007 is not simply a matter of affirming the right of all eligible adults to cast a ballot. It involves controversy over certain sections, in particular, section five. It requires nine states, including Georgia and parts of seven others, to get the approval of the federal government before making any changes in their electoral laws. This includes alterations to district boundaries or changes in polling place locations. Opponents argue either that it is no longer necessary to put special sanctions on a few states or that the requirement should be extended to every state.
There is no question that the original Voting Rights Act has made a difference. From a few thousand registered black voters in the South, in the years following its passage, there were hundreds of thousands. From fewer than 300 elected black officials in 1965, today we are approaching 10,000. The Voting Rights Act has been amended and extended to help others, non-English readers and disabled persons, to cast their ballots as well.
But are we really home free now?
Are we so certain that without federal scrutiny the electoral rights of all citizens will be protected and honored? Is voter discrimination really a past evil?
Can we say with certainty that this country has a democracy worth lifting up as a model to those countries in the world we are trying to influence, if not mold?
Does limiting the kinds of acceptable identification, for example, protect us against voter fraud, or place significant barriers to voting for the poor, for the elderly, and for others with statistically lower rates of getting drivers licenses and state ID cards? The Georgia legislature passed a law this past spring doing just that, limiting acceptable identification to only government-issued ID cards, versus the 17 possible means of identification that were previously acceptable at the polls, including birth certificates and bank statements.
There were lots of folks out on the streets yesterday with some real doubts about whether the right to vote is being universally upheld, and some real hopes that if they walked the walk, that justice will be done. If we are about the business of living our UU principles, then our fifth principle — the right of conscience and the use of democratic process within our congregations and in society at large — deserves, if not demands, our attention and our energies as well.
How shall we Keep the Vote Alive?
Sometimes you just have to march.