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.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

from sam,

today i walked across the pettit bridge. we walked 2x2, silently. the bridge has a high arch, so that when you walk up the bridge you cannot see over to the other side. when the marchers went across on bloody sunday, they didnt know (but suspected) what was ahead. once they reached the crest of the bridge, all they could see was a sea of law enforcement. they kept walking.

Jim on the Edmond Pettus bridge

On our second day in Selma, we ate lunch in the cafe where Reeb, Olsen, and Miller enjoyed a convivial dinner the evening of March 9 after the "turn around" march that followed "Bloody Sunday". Clark Olsen told of an uneventful dinner of soul food and then showed us where they were clubbed that led to Jim Reeb's death. Clark returned some years later to be present when a memorial to James Reeb was unveiled on the spot where he was beaten. It was touching to hear that Clark was able to tell Reeb's two daughters and grandchildren how the death of their father and grandfather was not in vain but led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that assured the rights of African Americans and others to vote.

The forty folks on our Pilgrimage, including Rev. Bill Sinkford, Gini Courter, the Beaufort Five walked quietly across the Edmond Pettus Bridge, two by two. I tried to imagine the feelings of those brave souls in 1965 that crested the bridge and saw the sea of blue waiting for them on the other side. Our guide for the day, was 11 years old when she walked on Bloody Sunday. She told of how they were beaten all the way back to the church. Her 14-year old sister had 26 stitches in her head, but still they walked hand-in-hand two days later and yet again when the walk to Montgomery was finally completed. Did I have that courage at 11 or 14? Do I have that courage today?

Beth Moon comments

To You Fellowship Five: I am so very impressed with all you all have written! What an educational and emotional experience..... I can imagine it must also be exhausting. My thoughts and prayers are with you - it's important that you are there and doing this. Take care and Happy V Day..... We'll miss you all, Beth

Rev. Nan and Sam comment on B'ham and Selma

I give you only a synopsis of this day because as I right it almost two days later I’m overwhelmed with the information we’ve been exposed to in a short amount of time. I predict I’ll be processing this experience the rest of my life. Thursday we began the day at the UU church in B’ham learning about the songs and spirituals that carried the civil rights movement. The point was made that the civil rights movement was a non-violent movement but the songs that were sung were aggressive, i.e. Onward Christian Soldiers. Jason Shelton, UU Minister of Music in Nashville, TN said, “Can you imagine singing “Spirit of Life” (a very slow, easy, rather passive hymn in the UUA hymnbook) during this movement?” We sang a few of the songs that had been adapted, such as, “Over My Head” where rather than seeing ‘trouble in the air’ it was replaced with the word “freedom”. “Keep your eyes on the plow” was adapted to “Keep your eyes on the prize”. These songs were adapted to the present, here and now and were, of course, were not led by a piano or even a guitar because the song had to move from inside the church to go outside, to march and protest. Someone said that when singing, it asks more of you when your voice was added to everyone else’s voice. Singing the song ‘This Little Light of Mine I’m gonna let it shine’ exemplified claiming yourself as a person who was literally committed to the movement. After this workshop we headed to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and 16th St Baptist Church, across the street from each other. We spent about 3 hours or so at these two places. We saw, in the church, where four little girls who were killed by a bomb on a Sunday morning. Joining us in the church was a school group of young children in the third grade who asked questions like, “are white people welcome at this church?” We were then given over 2 hours to walk through the B’ham Civil Rights Institute. It’s a self-directed journey taking you through life-like galleries beginning with segregation from 1920-1950’s, to the civil rights movement in the 60’s and onto the civil rights struggles of today. (Although almost nothing about marriage rights.) It’s a museum every person should see, a state of the art facility that is so large I wasn’t able to complete the tour. This was my first experience to visit this museum, bringing up memories of my childhood experience as a white person who lived separate from blacks until I was a freshman in high school. I will come back my next trip to B’ham. Kelly Ingram Park is across the street from the museum where we saw sculptures that included attack dogs and water guns spraying school children and a monument of Martin Luther King, Jr. From there we went to see Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’ church, Bethel Baptist, where we learned he had just had a stroke. I’ve learned that he was as instrumental as Martin Luther King, Jr. in B’ham when fighting for civil rights. Dinner was held at a restaurant ‘over the mountain’ where white suburbia was built over the years (Vestavia). We concluded the day (very late) listening to stories of members of the UU church in B’ham who were very active and involved in the movement. Their stories were deeply moving and inspiring learning about how some of them risked their lives for the sake of justice for a people too long oppressed. Emotionally we were all exhausted from the day, but very grateful and privileged to meet the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.

Sam says; we started our journey Thursday am at the UU Church of Birmingham with a worship service followed by personal sharing (which was very emotional for me) and then Jason Shelton lead us in the history of the songs of the movement, some of which we sang. After lunch we went to the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church which was bombed and where four little girls were killed. Then on to the civil rights institute. The day was so full that I felt overwhelmed. I’ll have to journal it later. Friday we headed for Marion, Al. to the sight where Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot after a rally and walk to the courthouse to demand voting rights. We heard from some of the people of the movement who were there. One woman, Mattie Adkins, told us of her memories of that day and evening. Even to this day when she recounts the events she became very emotional as she can still see some of the men standing in the church covered in blood after being beat with sticks and clubs. Her pain was palpable and many of us were in tears. Later, Jimmy Lee Jackson’s cousin, Shirley, took us to see his gravesite and also the childhood home and church of Coretta Scot King. We talked to her about the lack of education of the movement in the schools and the need to preserve the history as those who were involved are now grandparents. We then headed for Selma. We heard from three women who have actually developed a curriculum for teaching the history of the movement in the 4th grade in the Selma schools. They are hoping to develop a curriculum for older kids. I am already filled with emotion knowing that today is going to be spent walking some of the routes, including the Pettis Bridge, going to the courthouse, and eating lunch in the same cafĂ© where James Reeb and Clark Olsen had eaten before Reeb was attacked and mortally wounded. Clark has been telling us his story throughout the trip and it is still so painful and emotional for him.

Jim's notes

Friday, February 13 was a day for stories, emotional stories from the foot soldiers of the Movement. We left Birmingham for Marion, AL in the morning and watched parts of "Eyes on the Prize", the PBS documentary of the Civil Rights Movement. We arrived in Marion at mid-morning and sat in the Zion Methodist Church listening, transformed, by the personal accounts of six of those who were beaten back by the police as they left that church on February 18, 1965 to march to the jail to pray for an imprisoned protester. They told of the shooting of Jimmy Lee Jackson who, while trying to protect his grandfather, was shot by a state policeman. He died eight days later, the first of three martyrs of the Selma campaign. We prayed at his grave site which has been vandalized over the years by those who still hate. We had a delightful "church" lunch with more Styrofoam containers than I have seen since the 80s.

On to Selma, we visited the Brown Chapel AME Church where the mass meetings were held to organize the protest that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 7 that was met with tear gas, batons, and state police on horseback that beat the marchers back to the church. The televised clash aroused tha nation and Dr. King sent out a call for ministers to come to Selma to stand in solidarity. Several hundred did so and three who answered the call were Rev. Jim Reeb, Rev. Orloff Miller, and Ref. Clark Olsen. We were again transformed by Clark's personal account of the three ministers who were attacked by a group of white men after the march. The blow to Jim Reeb's head led to his death two days later, the second of the Selma martyrs and galvanized the nation. It should be noted that the nation did not respond to the death of a young black (Jimmy Lee Jackson) man but to the death of a white minister. President Johnson received no calls of indignation over Jackson's murder and 57 calls over Reeb's death.

The day was long and emotional. It is hard to fathom the ignorance and hate that drove the aggressive and violent defense of the indefensible. But it is incredibly moving to hear the personal stories of courage that led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to the election of the first African-American to the US presidency.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

From Sam: Thr Fellowship Five(as we've been dubbed)arrived safely in Birmingham and spent thr evening with great friends recalling moments of our lives during the sixties in the segregated south. The stories told around the table were powerful. I wish we had recorded the conversation. One story that i recalled was a time just after i got my driver's license. Excited to be driving, i looked for any excuse to run an errand. I headed to the pharmacy to pick up something and decided to bring back a 5 cent cherry coke for Narseal and Frances, two African Americans working in our household. I was so happy to present them with their cokes until my mother came in and took the cokes away and told me never to so that again. I was horrified to say the least for myself, but also for Narseal and Frances. The shock and embarrassment of it left and indelible mark on my herart. I really didnt understand where this was coming from since it seem to me that these women who had been working in out household over 14 years at the time were surely part of our family.

Rev. Nan says

This civil rights tour that will take us back in time to places where I was born, attended college, practice taught, and lived most of my young life, could prove to be a life changing experience. Now, a woman in my 50's and living in this country who elected its first African American as President of the United States, I will tread these civil rights steps with an open mind and heart and with honor to those lives lost in the struggle for civil rights. I am very grateful and feel privileged to be a participant on this pilgrimage. I'm looking forward to what memories are brought up for me and what insights I will learn.

Sam says

This trip was billed as a life changing experience. Skeptical of this, I began my reading for our upcoming civil rights. I find my self in disbelief and saddened of all that occurred during my teen years that I was so unaware of. Whether by choice(protective mode) or just being a self-absorbed teen, I’m not sure, but I am sure that my way of thinking about the civil rights era has changed. After reading about Ala., and Miss. I decided to go ahead and read what was going on in my home state of S.C. and ponder about being raised in a house with 3 caretakers who were African Americans. I don’t remember if they voted or even registered to vote at that time.but I wonder what they thought about their civil rights or if they dared to speak out loud about them. I do know that I loved them deeply. May I can begin to know them now.

Rev. Nan says

On the eve of this civil rights pilgrimage I gathered with women I've know for almost 30 years who live in B'ham. We sat around the dinner table talking of our experiences during the 60's, remembering where we were in our lives at that time. My two friends, sisters, were both in college. Both Baptist liberal arts schools, one in B'ham and the other in Mobile, Alabama. They are daughters of a Baptist minister in Mobile County who, at the time, was a man who understood the true sense of what it meant to be a Christian. He modeled for his daughters how to treat people no matter their skin color and these two women have lived their lives accordingly. The woman who was in college in B'ham at the time, told of how she and her student friends were told not to leave campus and go downtown B'ham or they would be expelled. And like a good liberal thinking woman, she did exactly that - took her car with classmates and headed downtown. Her memory was that she was very afraid while driving around downtown but also curious as to what was really happening between blacks and whites. She did not get expelled from college but she did gain a better sense of what was not being talked about in school or around a dinner table. The southern way has always been to not talk about it. It being, black and white relationships, even though we all grew up with either living near blacks, or working with blacks, or having a black working for our parents in our homes. The bottom line for us southern women around this dinner table last night, is that we were talking about it. And how refreshing it was for me, and hopefully everyone else around the table, to feel free to talk sbout our experiences and learn from our silent history. In my estimation silence is not golden.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Jim's musings on the eve of the Pilgramage

We five souls from Beaufort, SC (where the articles of secession were crafted) head out tomorrow for what we expect will be an emotional pilgrimage. For me, this trip is a closing of the circle that began over 50 years ago when I moved to Winston-Salem, NC to live with my grandparents. That move coincided with the Brown v. Board of Ed decision that rendered "separate but equal" schools systems unconstitutional. My grandfather, self-educated and provincial in the sense he had never traveled beyond NC and TN, taught me my first Unitarian lessons of relying on reason over orthodoxy and my first Universalist lessons to love all humankind as they have inherent worth and dignity. Paradoxically, he was a loyal Methodist, but railed against white churches for their biblical rationalization of segregation (at their best) and condoning violence against African-Americans (at their worst). He taught me to challenge clergy and the church when they were on the wrong side of love. He also challenged me to sit at the back of the bus with the black folks (and that is what he called African Americans in the mid-50s as a show of solidarity until the shackles of segregation were thrown off.

So to my maternal grandfather, John K. Pierce: this trip is dedicated to your memory and the universal truths you modeled for me at a very impressionable age. And to the early grounding you gave me to the importance of working for justice to make this world a better place.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jim's notes

I grew up in the segregated south, graduated from an all white high school, and started college at a state land-grant university with one African-American student who had to live in town as he could not be accommodated in the dormitories. This was the period of "massive resistance" state legislation to further rationalize segregation. In Virginia during this period, one county closed its schools, rather than integrate, and then transferred the property to white private schools to ensure that white students could be educated but not black students.

As the sit-ins and freedom rides gained momentum, and the nation watched the horrific events in AL, MS and other parts of the south, I was attending school, beginning a career, and starting a family. While I supported the Civil Rights activists in spirit, I was a passive bystander and did not walk the talk.

This pilgrimage is an atonement of sorts for me. I want to see where the critical civil rights events occurred, get a sense of the sacrifices these brave men and women made, and talk to those who stood at the barricades and took the body blows. I expect to have a greater appreciation for those who gave so much so that my mixed-race grand-daughter can achieve what generations of people before her could not. It will better inform my efforts to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

UU Living Legacy Pilgramage

A Unitarian Universalist Civil Rights Pilgrimage. It begins and ends in Birmingham, Alabama, and will include stops in Marion, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama, as well as Meridian and Philadelphia, Mississippi. Details of the this pilgramage can be found at

Five members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort (SC) will join 35 other souls on the Living Legacy Pilgramage beginning February 11. We will be posting our impressions along the way.