Fifty years ago the world watched as one of the greatest victories of the Civil Rights movement unfolded on the stage of Selma, Alabama. March 1965 was the Super Bowl of the Civil Rights Movement. The stakes were high—the right for unencumbered voting for African American voters was on the line in this growing city. Almost no African Americans were able to register to vote given they had to undergo literacy tests, civil tests, poll taxes, as well as having others vouch for them. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of that great victory that culminated in the march from Selma to the Statehouse in Montgomery and compelled President Johnson to issue and sign the Voter Rights Act.
My Family Connection
While the story of what happened fifty years ago in Selma is a compelling one, I care about what happened in that city for personal reasons.
This week marks the anniversary of the wedding of my parents in Selma, Alabama fifty years ago on April 25th, exactly one moth after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his speech on the steps of the capital in Montgomery. The very thought of me was conceived on the soil of Selma, Alabama. If the movement had not returned to Selma, I may have never been born.
My father was from a small town in Ohio and drove down to Selma for work and to see the news up close. An Army Veteran, he was used to living and working among people from diverse backgrounds. He worked in Selma as a day laborer alongside other African Americans of that time. He met my mother at a drive-in restaurant thus began their courtship. As the story goes, apparently the FBI called my mother at home and asked her if she knew who she was involved with—that he was driving black men around Selma. My mother was a divorcee with four children. While the call concerned her, she was undeterred and they married on April 25, 1965. She and my father along with her four children piled into the car and headed up north to live in a small town in Northwest Ohio surrounded by farm country. While Selma was the center stage of the civil rights movement, Northwest Ohio was not.
When Granddaddy said “Goodbye” to my parents as they left in the car to head north to Ohio, he told my mother.
“Do not speak of these things that have happened down here to the people in the north, they will not understand. Do not speak of race, politics or religion lest you will find yourself in the midst of conflict and no one to defend you. Therefore keep silent, for it is better to say nothing at all, than to say something you will regret later.”
And so, my mother kept silent and hid her first hand experiences of what happened in Selma, Alabama from everyone, including me. I never knew that my parents were courting in Selma at the time of this historic march until just a few years ago when I pressed my mother to break the silence.
My Parent’s Time
In 1960 Selma, Alabama boasted a 25% growth rate with over 28,000 people living within her city limits. The population was fifty percent white and fifty percent black. Though African Americans had the right to vote, almost none had been able to successfully register to vote in any election up until 1965 because of the systemic oppression of the local government and the tacit agreement given in every white pulpit in the city… including the pulpit of my Granddaddy.
You see my grandfather was a minister of a small church in Selma, Alabama during the Civil rights movement. On Sunday March 7th when Christian leaders marched peacefully across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for voters rights and were attacked by mounted police, he was not among them. When Rev. King on National television made a public call for clergy and people of goodwill from all around the country to join the people of Selma on their March from Selma to Montgomery, he did not answer that call.
My mother and her four children did not attend the successful march on Sunday March 21st, nor did my father. My family was there, but they were not among those who risked their lives to stand for justice.
I suspect their eyes were not open to the oppression imposed upon their African American brothers and sisters. I imagine they thought they were living the best Christian lives they could, just trying to get by, as the daughter of a preacher, divorced in 1965 with four young children. I know that Granddaddy wanted to protect his daughter and four grandchildren from the violence erupting within his own city…murder, beatings, rallies and marches. He was only too happy to send his family out of the war zone.
Let love be Genuine, Hate what is Evil
Paul in Romans gives us our marching orders in the face of evil and oppression. “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” I imagine that Rev. King knew these verses well and that the Movement lived and died by them. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the justice of God…overcome evil with good.” Their non-violent movement was intended to illustrate the atrocities that African Americans faced daily in Selma and elsewhere—they lacked access not only to the vote, but they lacked access to every day rights that people of privilege take for granted.
The Civil Rights Movement is Not Over
It is so easy to think that the problems our nation faced in 1965 are over, that voter rights no longer need to be fought for. It is easy to believe that systematic persecutions are artifacts of the past—like the Roman Occupation of Israel we read about in the Bible or the backward ways of the Old South from our own American History. Yet, we are seeing erupting on the national stage civil rights abuses in great numbers reflected in case after case…in towns like Ferguson and all around our country. It is too easy to say, “Well that was then, and this is now.” Then is now.
With the national eye on Ferguson, MO we hope that this community and others like it will be transformed into a safer more equitable places to live. After all, Selma is better off now, right?
Unfortunately, Selma experienced a great exodus of capital, jobs, resources and people after the voting rights bill was passed. The 1970 census shows that the city experienced a 35% decline in population. They are now 80% percent African American, with over 40% of its people living under the poverty line. The per capita median income is $29,000.
I have traveled to Selma many times over my life while my Grandparents were alive and leading their small congregation about one mile from the Edmond Pettus Bridge. Each time I went there I saw a city frozen in time, unchanged, as if they were caught in a photograph documenting the poverty and plight of the African American of the 1960’s. What happened to Selma? How can we as a nation be reconciled to her? We owe that city a great deal more than one movie and a presidential visit. What about Ferguson, what about our own communities? What can the church today do? What can we do? How can we bring reconciliation and restoration?
Break the Silence—Tell the Story
Jesus words in Matthew echo in my brain, “First be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then make your offering to God.” While my civil rights story is not one of striding hand in hand facing blows together in the street or on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I have learned a great deal from my courageous mother. She dared to teach me how to be friends with people from a variety of backgrounds and faiths. My friends come form many ethnic groups and religions. You see what happened in Selma, AL happened to my family also. My people come from Selma too and this is my story. It is the legacy and history that I dare to pass on honestly to our two teenage children. My children in their school and among their friends stand up against injustice and count the lessons we learned from Selma as their own so they they may continue the work for the civil rights for all people. But they had to first come to terms with the fact that their family was among the thousands who did not march that day.
We can Stand Together
Maybe as people of faith, today we need to break our silence on matters of race, economics, and justice. Maybe we need to see our own place in today’s civil rights movement—as advocates, supporters, justice seekers and contributors, as well as those daring to march and protest. I do not want to sit on the sidelines like my Granddaddy did. The Civil Rights Movement did not pass us by–we were a part of it no matter the role we played. I want to have the courage like the men and women who dared to walk along side Dr. King who are still seeking opportunities for safe housing, fair treatment, and their daily bread. I pray in the words of Paul, “Let our love be genuine, let us hate what is evil, and let us outdo one another in showing honor.”
May we break our own silence and stand together.