The Southeast Conference has an active legacy from the Civil Rights movement. As the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday was observed in Selma, several of our UCC churches were present there to witness to our commitment to justice and solidarity. The following reflections are from members of three UCC churches that attended. We are grateful for the people who traveled and walked and prayed in memory and in the knowledge that we still have work to do.
Click on each name to read their reflection or just scroll down to read in order:
First Congregational Church, Atlanta, GA
Bette Graves Thomas
As a white woman, being in Selma was like reconnecting a bridge between the ignorance that has been my black history lessons, and the reality of 50 years ago. Bloody Sunday is the point of contact for that bridge – a moment in history which embodies so starkly the experience of so many black folks in America for too many years, and too many years which linger into the present.
Being in Selma was a way to reconstruct a bridge of trust that was lost when white cops chose to beat their brothers and sisters, their skin tones the enemy and their bodies the victim. Not that I can establish trust myself, but by learning about the movement, the differences between reality and a well-crafted but still inaccurate movie, and hearing the voices of my socially segregated neighbors, I will be prepared to raise a voice of disruption when the present starts sounding eerily like the past. And in so doing, perhaps establish one more bridge of trust.
Selma reminded me that voluntary social segregation exists today. And when I simply flock to people who look like me because I feel more secure in my own skin, I perpetuate that dysfunctional separation.
Bloody Sunday is ultimately a challenge. When people live the relentless optimism of nonviolent resistance, the truth of equal treatment and opportunity resonates beyond death, beyond clubs and bruises. I am challenged and encouraged by my brothers and sisters who chose to amplify the ideals of peace and persistence when they walked that bridge.
On his Facebook page, one of the young people from Beloved asked why folks are so focused on events that happened 50 years ago, when right now, unarmed minority youth are being killed by the police. In my reply to him, I replied that we need to look back in order to find the courage to move forward. I went to Selma to celebrate the faith and determination of those who marched for justice 50 years ago. They marched, not knowing what was going to happen, but stepping forward in faith. And, because of their courage and the courage of all of those foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, things did change. Their actions are an inspiration, especially when we look at events around us and think that things will never change.
The other reason I went to Selma was to participate in the day’s events. The program was full of workshops dealing with such timely topics incarceration, immigration and health care. Unfortunately, I did not get to attend any of them. What I did get to do was to travel to Selma with a group from Beloved, park in a spot that had been reserved for us by the Pastor of First Church, fellowship and attend activities with a family from Pilgrim, and drive back to Birmingham with a group from Covenant. Any day spent with my UCC family is a great day indeed!
Rev. Angie Wright
The Selma commemoration is act of remembrance, of gratitude to God and people of faith and courage. It is also an act of recommitment to be about God’s work in the world. Bloody Sunday brought to light state-sanctioned violence against blacks and the power of God’s liberating spirit to bring an end to that violence and bondage. As John Legend said at the Oscars, Selma is Now! During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two to three Black people were lynched every week in the American South. The same number of Black people are now killed every week now by white police officers; a Black person is killed every 28 hours at the hands of police of any race.
To end violence and bondage is the liberating work of the spirit of God today, and if it is God’s work, it is our work. This we know: Nothing and no one will stand in the way of the liberating power of God.
Bette Graves Thomas
My trip to Selma came about because my girlfriend’s sorority was making a bus trip there. Having grown up during the Civil Rights Movement, I was very eager to be a part of the 50th Anniversary. First let me say that my former husband’s family was from Selma so we went to Selma EVERY December 26th. But I had not returned for many years. Our first stop was Tabernacle Church, where his grandmother and many aunts had been funeralized. This was very emotional. From there to Brown Chapel, where I had also attending funerals and then across the bridge. The tears never stopped. There were hundreds of people trying to cross the bridge at once. That was frustrating but to think what it was like 50 years ago with the beatings, the hosing, etc. was overwhelming. The tears did not stop. As I crossed the bridge I thanked God for allowing me to have this experience and asked Him to protect all of us as we continue the struggle – a struggle that is better 50 years later, but far from over. My trip to Selma on March 8th is one that I will never forget.
There are many emotions I tried to contend with on the weekend trip our family took to Selma, and I’m still processing the events that were a commemoration of what became known as Bloody Sunday.
The 600 marchers’ first attempt at making the trek from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965 was met with opposition in the form of a vicious attack by Alabama state troopers at the behest of then Governor George Wallace. The troopers used batons and teargas to impede the marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. (Pettus, by the way, was a Confederate and the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan … amazing who can get a structure named after them.)
That Saturday, I got goose bumps as I watched President Obama, a black man, elected by a mosaic of Americans (who the marchers on Bloody Sunday dared only dream of when they sought equality for voter registration) give a barnburner of a speech. Even more, I was moved by the ocean of humanity my family was a part of, individuals of every ethnicity, who gathered to pay homage to those who sacrificed time, energy, money, blood, sweat, and, too often, their lives to protest the unconstitutional disenfranchisement of millions of American citizens because their skin color was like mine.
The day after the commemoration, we began the morning with a walk across the bridge that was the sight of so much violence, yet, this time, it was with the classmates, teachers, parents, and administrators from the school my children attend, alongside students from Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy. Next we were treated to a visit to the Jackson family home, where Dr. King and his lieutenants were fed, slept, and strategized. This was a well-to-do black family, with a five-year-old daughter and everything to lose, but still they opened their home. Later that day, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of George Wallace gave an emotionally jarring speech that reminded me that change begins with each of us.
Rev. Piazza’s sermon this past Sunday, entitled “Traveling Third Class,” got me thinking more about how we “travel” through life, and which “class” we select. It wasn’t until Dr. King and others challenged brothers and sisters of faith, coupled with the horrid images shown on televisions and vividly described in print, did privileged folks in “first or second class seating,” feel compelled to travel in “third class” and get actively involved. Why does it require so much to do what is right?
Charity has its place, but my wife and I work hard to raise children who are not only charitable and empathetic, but unafraid to ask the questions: Why is there suffering, and what can be done about it? Whether it is access to health care, marriage equality, foster parenting, homelessness, income inequality, police brutality, or any other social injustice, how often do we elect to send a check, rather than get dirty and do the real work? We know we have to be better models of the behavior we desire. That weekend in Selma, we were reminded that we owe it to our children, and the world they will inherit, to understand, appreciate, and feel compelled to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.
Rev. Kathy Burton
The Other Side of the Bridge
We had decided to drive down Saturday morning not knowing what we would be able to see or do, but wanting to be a part of this momentous occasion. My personal priority was to get to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in time to hear two of my heroes, Congressman John Lewis and President Barack Obama.
We arrived in Selma about an hour before they were scheduled to speak and found total gridlock on the road to the west side of the bridge, where the ceremony would be taking place. My group decided that, rather than risk missing everything, we would remain on the east side, where, we were told, the dignitaries would walk after the speeches. Sadly for us, that didn’t happen.
Part of me wishes we had tried harder to get to the other side of the bridge, but, at the same time, I think circumstances put us where we needed to be. We spent the day with many Selma natives, who shared with us the lack of progress that has been made in the past 50 years in their city in the area of racial equality, from its still-segregated school system to the lack of jobs for African-Americans.
Miss Diamond, who has lived her entire life in Selma, shared that the area we where we stood is called Selmont, and that it is not considered part of the city of Selma. So, she and her neighbors are not allowed to vote for the mayor or city council of Selma. The irony was not lost on any of us when she said that Selma ended at the foot of the bridge, which was where the Bloody Sunday attacks occurred.
For the 900 or so of us on the Selmont side of the bridge (by my count, fewer than 10 of us were white), there were no porta-potties, no food vendors, not even a trash can. Only 50 or so state troopers making sure we stayed off the bridge. As a pastor, a Christian, and an American, I needed to be there that day, to be reminded that we need to do better, that we are called to do better, in all the Selmas throughout our nation.
The Gifts of Selma
As we drove into Selma, Alabama on the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” my friend and I were like kids waiting to see what presents were under the tree. As the day unfolded, the gifts poured over us, again and again, from the people we met, to the energy we felt. I remember three of those gifts very distinctly.
Seeing heroes like Diane Nash and C.T. Vivian. They never became as famous as Dr. King and Congressman Lewis, but they did help organize the 1965 march, so I knew a little about both of them, and it was a thrill just to catch a glimpse. Then and now, they’ve been nothing if not principled in their lifelong dedication to non-violence, and principled in their belief that fighting for civil rights means fighting for everyone’s civil rights, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
Meeting the wonderful Betty Tyler in downtown Selma. Betty was with her daughters, craning their necks to try to see President Obama as he spoke. She lives in Selma now, as she did as a teenager back in 1965. She remembers watching the marchers and organizers pass between her house and the bridge. Although she doesn’t recall much more than that, she does remember that her intense fear co-existed with the realization that she was watching history being made. As we talked to her, her three daughters stood by proudly, all with tears in their eyes.
Walking up to and over the bridge. One side of the bridge empties out into downtown Selma, and, from that side, you can’t see over the top of the bridge. As we walked up to the bridge from downtown, and then passed over the Alabama River, we began to realize all that had happened on the bridge and what it stood for. As we reached the highest point, we could see to the other side of the river, and to the exact spot where the marchers met the billy clubs, attack dogs, and fire hoses. Is it possible that they believed so deeply in what they stood for that they marched right into what they knew could have meant death? I was awe struck, and so inspired.
Congressman Lewis said, “You cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.”
Boy, isn’t that the truth? On that day, the marchers’ courage changed the country. I am humbled and honored to have been in Selma, and I pray daily that I can have just a touch of the courage that those folks have had their entire lives. What a gift that would be!