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.

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