this history ain’t over. October 8, 2012Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
I wish that I could bring you along on this Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage, because I could write a sermon or even a book on what we experience each day. Choosing what to write here, in such a limited format, is difficult. Particularly on a day as powerful as today, day 3.
We arrived in Marion, AL this morning, at a small, unassuming church. We walked up and down the street, looking at the historical markers. If you didn’t already know, you would never guess that the idea for the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 started with this small town of 3500.
And yet it did.
We met this morning in Zion United Methodist Church and heard the stories of people who were there at the church for the night march on February 18, 1965. On this night, the local marchers didn’t get very far before being disrupted by the local authorities. The street lights were turned off, the TV journalist was attacked for having lights. And when a young man tried to help his grandfather, who was injured in the march, and his mother who was being attacked by another police officer, the young man was cornered by police and shot in the stomach. He was able to run away, but Jimmie Lee Jackson died 8 days later.
His death was not in vain. In the church, after the gunshots and chaos, one woman exlaimed “Let’s take his body and put it on the steps to the capital in Montgomery so that Wallace can see what he did” and thus the idea of a walk was born. Marion was too far, but the idea transformed into a march from Selma to Montgomery (without Jackson’s body, as it had been buried by that time.)
Martin Luther King spoke at Jackson’s funeral. The procession was over 700 people, walking through town to this small gravesite. After lunch, we saw the pocks in the marble marker that were made by people driving by and shooting at it over the years. This history ain’t over.
At the church, we listened to the stories of people who were there. People who just wanted the right to vote, to be able to participate in our democracy. They talked about how the registrar’s office was only open a few hours a month, and that there was a tax, and a ridiculous test that changed when the white folks learned that the black folks were studying for it.
One woman is now a registrar herself, and she shared with us discrepancies she has found in the current rolls that the national voter registration database is turning out. Many of the participants shared their concerns that we are slipping backwards. The emotion as they told their story was alive. This history ain’t over.
After Marion, we went to Selma. We watched a video at the Interpretive Center. Two quotes from it stand out for me. One is from a black minister trying to explain this history to high school students. He says: “It wasn’t about life, or death. It was about – do we want to win?” It was an idea that was bigger than the individuals who participated.
And the second quote is from a young woman, probably just out of high school. She says, with tears in her eyes: “Knowing what they went through, how could I not vote?” This history ain’t over.
As we drove around Selma, we stopped at the historical marker at the site where three Unitarian ministers were assaulted when they were walking back after a dinner break. The three had been among those who responded to Martin Luther King’s “clergy call” that asked for clergy to come to town for the march to Montgomery. One of the three, James Reeb, was hit in the head from behind by a white man with a club. His skull was shattered and he died 2 days later. This story was powerfully told by Clark Olsen, one of the three ministers who was there, and a fellow participant on this pilgrimage. Clark has spent many, many years telling his story and Reeb’s story in an effort to keep alive the history and sacrifice that so many people made. This history ain’t over.
Birmingham, Selma, and in a few days we will be in Montgomery. To me, these places have all been pictures in text books, or video clips in documentaries. Talking with, crying with, touching some of the people who lived through it makes this history very much alive. I can begin to see the string that connects these historical events with where we find ourselves today. This history is far, far from being over.