Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Jim Back in Birmingham

We have visited grave sites of fallen martyrs, heard emotional first-person accounts of the foot soldiers of Civil Rights era, and witnessed the impact on families of the selfless activists. I have been educated by the museums, inspired by the music, and awed by my fellow pilgrims. Moreover, I have lost sleep for the past six nights on how to process what I have observed on this pilgrimage and integrate it into the work that calls us as Unitarian Universalists to bend the moral universe towards justice.

Today we broke bread with the good folks of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church outside Philadelphia, MS and heard the story of the night the Klan waited for a meeting related to registering Black voters to break up. They attacked some of the congregants as they were leaving the church and then burned the church to the ground.

Three voter registration workers, two white and one black who had made inquiries of the church members after the attacks, were reported missing several days later after they were arrested, jailed, and released late in the evening if June 21, 1964. The bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were discovered in an earthen dam on August 4. While the families wanted them buried together, Mississippi segregation laws would not permit it even though the Klan saw fit to bury them together in their first shallow grave. We prayed and sang over the grave of James Chaney this morning.

With this backdrop we heard Leroy Clemons, the President of the local NAACP chapter. His comments about how Blacks, Whites, and Native Americans came together 40 years after these horrific events to claim their history and learn how to work together as a community as they worked for justice now and in the future. We then heard from Hollis Watkins of Southern Echo who, as an activist from the Freedom Summer days, is applying the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement in building bridges to the future in economic, environmental, political, and social justice issues. His advice? Involve the youth of our communities. Teach them the lessons of the past and harness their energy and creativity in our justice work. And sing.

I think I will sleep better tonight. The lessons of this day are becoming clear. There is work to do in my community, my congregation and my district. Now to spread the word.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sam says

The last two days have been filled with so much info, emotion, conversation that I don’t quite know where to begin. We have heard from so many wonderful people. The women we have heard from have been incredible. I have, however found a recurring theme from them. The women from Marion, Joanne, our tour guide in Selma, her sister, and Shirley, our guide at the Dexter Church Parsonage in Montgomery (MLK’s home) all shared a similar story. They left home after the voting rights act was passed and moved north, some to Michigan, one to New York, one to Rhode Island. After being away for up to 30 years, they all moved back to the south. When I asked Joanne why she left, she told me it was because the people in power, before the voting rights had been established, were still in power after. In other words, nothing changed. When I asked why she moved back, she told me that she longed to be with family. I found that strange to me since it never crossed my mind to move back home after I left. Every day on this tour I think nothing can top the day before, but every day is different and deeper, and sadder. We’re in Mississippi tomorrow. This could be difficult. Home on Wednesday.

Rev Nan on the bus back to Birmingham

This pilgrimage has been so full that it’s hindered me from posting a blog every day. So hopefully when you read Jim and Sam’s blog you will get a sense of what we did on other days. Also if you go to this legacy should be on the home page and you’ll find Gini Courter’s blog. Click on to that and you’ll read about many other places and experiences we’ve had. I want to write about Sunday and Monday while we were in Montgomery. When we arrived in Montgomery Sunday afternoon our bus drove us straight to the Alabama State capitol where the UU’s of Montgomery and others in the city were on the steps of the capital for a vigil remembering a gay many who had been brutally murdered almost 10 years ago and to support a hate-crime bill in the state of Alabama. A band was playing while the 40 of us got off the bus doubling the crowd. The first person we heard to speak was Paul, the minister of the UU congregation whom I know (Paul is the one who led me through a healing service based on a Quaker model where I in turn have led the Beaufort congregation). People were holding colorful rainbow flags and the mood was somber yet uplifting. Then Bill, our UUA president, was asked to speak. I stood very proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. When a woman minister gave the benediction she told of her experience of being asked to attend this vigil 8 years ago because no other clergy in town were willing to go. She told us of her fear in saying yes and then thankfully she came to her senses and realized she had no choice but to go and has been attending this vigil ever sense. I had the program in my hand but didn’t see what church this woman was representing. I walked up the steps to ask Paul and he said Presbyterian. I immediately went over to her and thanked her for her courage to be here. I also told her I used to be a Presbyterian minister but am now a UU. And she said something to the effect that ‘I figure if I don’t start speaking up about how we Presbyterians treat people who’s sexual orientation is different from what we’re used to, then I better start doing it now.’ And I said, ‘Yes you must, because it’s people like me, who used to be a Presbyterian minister, that you’ll continue to loose.’ We were not at the capital more than an hour and I found it to be the great next step from the past of Marion and Selma to the present of today in terms of standing up for the civil rights of all people. Monday we had the privilege of seeing the Rosa Parks Museum, which is an incredible, life like experience. You get a real sense of what she experienced the day she chose not to get up from her seat on the bus and move for a white person. From there we went to Martin Luther King, Jr. home, the parsonage of Dexter Ave. Baptist church. Our guide taking us through the home was a black woman who taught in Rhode Island for almost 30 years and came back home to Montgomery to retire. Without a doubt she is the most passionate person I’ve met on this pilgrimage. I silently wished I’d had her as a teacher at some time in my life. She speaks about how she never would have had the privilege of teaching if MLK had not done what he did on behalf of people like her. If you ever go to Montgomery you must go see the parsonage and ask for Shirley to be your guide. She walked us through the house ending the tour in the kitchen where at that kitchen table Dr. King sat in fear for his life and his family’s life. Yet after a prayer deep within his soul he heard the whisper of God telling him to stand up, stand up for your people and I will be with you. As Shirley told all of us that if you leave this house today, after hearing Dr. King’s experience, and your life is not changed then there’s something wrong with you. I thanked her for teaching me today.

Jim on the bus from Montgomery to Meridian

We were warmly welcomed when we worshiped at Brown’s Chapel on Sunday. Brown’s Chapel AME Church was the center of gravity for the planning of the Selma Civil Rights campaign in 1964 and 1965. The Bloody Sunday and Turnaround Marches of March 7 and 9 originated here, and the victims of the first march returned here for treatment. The church is located right in the middle of George Washington Carver Homes, the “projects” that were built in the 50s.

After church and a good old southern soul-food lunch, we returned to our bus to drive to Montgomery following the same route of the successful 54-mile Selma to Montgomery March on March 25, 1965. We stopped along the way at the Viola Liuzzo memorial along side Route 80. Liuzzo was the third martyr of the Selma-campaign. She was a 39-year-old mother of five from Detroit and a Unitarian Universalist. Viola had seen the TV coverage of Bloody Sunday and was moved to drive to Selma to walk in solidarity with others who answered the call to join the march to Montgomery. Driving marchers back to Selma from Montgomery after the successful march and in the company of a Black man, she was followed and shot to death. No one was ever charged in her death.

Reaching Montgomery, we went to the state capital and joined a vigil to honor the memory of a young gay man who was killed several years ago in a hate crime. After dinner, we heard the stories of the Montgomery Bus Boycott from the Rev. Robert Graetz, a young white Lutheran minister who served a black congregation in 1955 and thus ostracized by the white community.

On Monday, we started the morning at the Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin, the architect who designed the Viet Nam memorial. We then went to the First Baptist Church, and learned of its history during the bus boycott in 1955 and later during the Freedom Rides of the 1960s. We closed out our time there with a rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice”, the black national anthem. Accompanied by the big organ, we sounded pretty good. We then went to the Rosa Parks Museum, where we saw an incredibly animation/reenactment of her arrest for refusal to give up her seat. She is appropriately called the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. The movement was started by women (no surprise there) that ultimately drew in Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy and other clergy.

I had thought the afternoon visit to Dr. King’s parsonage when he served Dexter Street Baptist Church would be mildly interesting, but it turned out to be the highlight of the day for me. Shirley Cherry, the director of the interpretation center next door, was a lively and passionate host. She took us through the modest parsonage, and she made the rooms come alive as she detailed the many threatening calls prior to the bombing of the home during the bus boycott. We ended our tour in the kitchen where King had an epiphany late one night after one such call that threatened his children. He heard an inner voice that said that God would get him through the hard times. On that note, we left for Meridian to reflect on his and his family’s courage in the face of threats to his life and family.

I am still having trouble fathoming the courage of so many people to stand up to their oppressors, repeatedly, and over the years. They put their lives and their livelihoods on the line for justice. Could I do that?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gini's Blog

Check out Gini Courter's blog Gini is the Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Assoication of Congregations. She has more pictures there that you might find interesting.

Liz, Jim, and Barb in front of Coretta Scott King's childhood home. Her father's store is to the left and the church where she and Dr. King were married is 30 yards further to the left.

The memorial to Jim Reeb is on the spot where he was attacked on March 9, 1965 in Selma after the "Turn-Around" March.

Rev. Nan says

On Saturday we spent much of the day with Joanne. A native of Selma, she lived here during the mass meetings and marches fighting for voting rights. She is an incredible woman and witness to how important it was to finally get to vote. As a child during the 60’s she took the hand of her sister to walk the Pettus Bridge that Bloody Sunday. Can you imagine the fear she experienced when thinking she was going on another march, something she loved to do, and then as she came over the top of the bridge she began to hear the screams of people being trampled by the police.
Even the horses the men were riding were afraid of all the terror and panic.
That march turned into chaos and fear for her as they turned and ran back the way they had just come, looking for a safe place. As she and her sister held each other and cried she realized it wasn’t her sisters tears that were dropping onto her, it was her sisters blood. Joanne, as an young woman, left Selma for the military only to return with bitterness in her heart. Selma had not changed much and the stories of what she and other experienced back in the 60’s were beginning to be lost. She committed herself for that not to happen. She became instrumental in creating the National Voting Rights Museum documenting everyone’s story during that time. She also led tours around the city, like she did for us, where the more she told the story it became therapeutic for her to work through her feelings of hate for white people. I must say that she is a woman who knows where she stands with most every person, but she is also a woman of profound love and is not afraid to tell you and share with you that love which is more powerful than anything else in the world when it comes to living in freedom.