“Across the Bridge” A Personal Reflection

We will come to the bridge in my title in due time, but it is a later piece of the story I want to tell tonight, so I will begin with an important book I read last summer while I was filling in as a guest preacher for my daughter during her maternity leave.

The book was Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. My pastor had given it to me the year before, but I hadn’t got around to reading it. It was written in 1949, which happens to be the year I was born, and it came out right before the civil rights movement really got moving in the 1950’s.

Howard Thurman, a black minister and scholar, was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He had traveled to India and had met Mahatma Gandhi. When Thurman asked Gandhi what message he should take back to the United States, Gandhi said he regretted not having made nonviolence more visible as a practice worldwide and he famously remarked “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman did come back with that message about non-violent resistance, and became one of the influences on one of his students, Martin Luther King, who did his doctorate at Boston University. And the Civil Rights movement did in fact employ a variety of the tactics of nonviolent resistance, such as sit-ins, bus boycotts, Freedom Rides, marches, and mass demonstrations.

In his book, Howard Thurman draws comparisons between the socio-political world that Jesus grew up in under Roman Occupation, and the American South during the Jim Crow era. In both cases powerful majorities disinherited powerless minorities through fear and the threat of violence. The regular lynching in Howard Thurman’s day and the regular crucifixions of Jesus’s day were both designed to instill terror in the disinherited minority and keep them in their place.

Howard Thurmond had learned the Bible by reading it out loud to his grandmother, who was born a slave and was never taught to read. One day he asked her why she never read from the letters of Paul. She said the slaveowners wouldn’t let black preachers preach to them, but would bring in white preachers, and it was always Paul telling them, “Slaves, obey your masters.” “That is why I don’t want to hear from Paul!” she told him.

But she also told him that the slaves would have secret church meetings in the middle of the night, and the black preachers would tell them, “You are not a slave. You are not that bad word they call you. You are a child of God. God loves you.”

In the night they heard a different story than the official day-time story of their oppressors. The stories we tell ourselves help shape our self-understanding. Our country is in an ongoing national conversation about race, and the meaning and impact of hundreds of years of enslavement and oppression.

That conversation is not an easy one, but it is a necessary one if we are going to get our national story straight. For many people that truth is so threatening and painful that they deny it. I want to share with you an experience I had recently that has influenced how I understand America’s story in regard to race. My understanding is not complete, but it has been deepened.

Early in September of last year, Martha and I went to a United Church of Christ Pension Board meeting in Montgomery, AL. I have to confess that Montgomery. AL had never been on my bucket list of places to visit. But I was pleasantly surprised. Montgomery is a bustling modern city with lots of nice restaurants and places to visit.

But what was really special about our Montgomery trip was visiting the many Civil Rights Movement sites. We spent an afternoon at the Rosa Parks museum, which tells the inspiring story of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955. For thirteen months the black citizens refused to take city buses, and traveled by a fleet of taxis, hearses, and church buses to get to work.

I learned some things I didn’t know about Rosa Parks. I knew she was an elderly seamstress who refused to go to the back of the bus because she was tired. The seamstress part is true, but Rosa Parks was only 42 at the time of the incident. On December 1, 1955 she refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger and the bus driver called the police, who escorted her off the bus and arrested her.

I also learned that the police couldn’t sustain the charge against her, because she hadn’t broken any law, rather she had violated a norm. There was a white section, but Parks was sitting in the row after the white section. By custom she would have given up her seat to any white person who came in after the white section was filled up, but she refused.

She was also not just some random person, but the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, and she had recently attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, for a workshop training in non-violent resistance. There were “repercussions” for her act. Repercussions were the cost of courage during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Rosa Parks was fired by the department store where she worked, and she received death threats for many years. Today in Montgomery there is a marker on the site where she refused to go to the back of the bus.

We also went to the “Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” built near the site of the market where tens of thousands of Black enslaved people were sold. The museum opened in April, 2018 and is a project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The EJI

believes that the history of racial inequality and economic injustice in the United States has created continuing challenges for all Americans, and more must be done to advance our collective goal of equal justice for all. The United States has done very little to acknowledge the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation.

Through the use of multi-media and storytelling the museum presents parts of the national story that have often been left untold.

We also visited another EJI project which opened the same day as the museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally called the National Lynching Memorial. It is hard for me to talk about this, but it is part of our national story.

Let me describe the Memorial for you. “Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror.” The memorial square has 805 hanging steel rectangles, roughly the size and shape of coffins. Each of them has the names of the counties where a documented lynching took place in the United States. Each of the steel plates also has the names and dates of the documented lynching victims (or “unknown” if the name is not known).

More than 4075 documented lynching of African Americans took place between 1877 and 1950, concentrated in 12 Southern states, but also lynching took place in several states outside the South. I saw counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, among others. The monument is the first major work in the nation to name and honor these victims. As you walk under these coffin-shaped rectangles the floor gradually slopes lower and lower, so the coffins seem to be rising above your head. It is absolutely chilling.

Why the date of 1877 as the start of the lynching? That was the year that Reconstruction ended and the last Union troops, who had been stationed throughout the South since the end of the Civil War in 1865, were removed from the former Confederacy.

Without these troops to protect the rights of the freed slaves, a new period began in the former Confederacy, which they ironically called “Redemption.” New measures, called Jim Crow laws, were enacted to enforce segregation and deny blacks civil rights and voting rights. Violence and the threat of violence upheld this system. Lynching was an important piece of the system. These thousands of extra-judicial murders took place without trials or due process. They were often community events that looked like a Fourth of July celebration or a Sunday School picnic. No one would ever be arrested, or if so, no white jury would ever convict.

This de facto state-sponsored violence kept free African Americans in a state of bondage for the better part of a century, and mass incarceration of young black men and voter suppression continue to this day. The ideology of white supremacy is alive and well in America. The story it tells is that blacks are inferior to whites, and so can be treated unfairly and unjustly and deprived of their rights, especially their right to vote.

And now I have to tell you about Jake Williams. Jake is the owner/operator of Montgomery Tours. Martha and I stayed an extra day to go on a bus tour with Jake of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. Jake was on that march with two of his older sisters when he was 12 years old.

Jake is an Africa-American man who owns his own company. He’s owned two restaurants, was a truck driver and teaches truck-driving at the local community college.

Jake grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama where his father was a sharecropper and his mother was a domestic servant who worked for a white family. Jake pointed out a cotton field where he had picked cotton as a boy. He said if he didn’t pick his quota his mother would strike him in the head. His mother got up at 4 in the morning to walk out to the highway to hitch a ride to her white family’s house, where she cleaned the kitchen and made them breakfast. She was paid $4 a day.

Jake said that the sharecropper system was better for the plantation owner than slavery. The owner provided housing and the sharecroppers bought all their food and goods from the owner’s store on credit, and they were always behind. Jake told the story about how his father got behind in his credit and the plantation owner offered to erase his debt if he would let him “have his way” with his teenage daughter. His father took a night-time job to see that didn’t happen.

Jake drove us along the March Route to Selma and we had lunch there. Selma today is a run-down town that fell on hard times when their local Air Force base was closed. We went to the church where the marchers gathered on March 7, 1965. The impetus for the march was that on February 26, an activist and deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, died after being mortally shot several days earlier by a state trooper, during a peaceful march in nearby Marion, Alabama.

The marchers were committed to and trained in non-violent resistance. They carried no weapons. On March 7, the marchers left Selma and headed across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The bridge is only 250 long, and it is arched so you can’t see to the other side of the Alabama River until you get to the top of the span. This became significant to the marchers since the other side of the bridge is no longer Selma, but county territory. On my trip with Jake I walked across it. I felt like I was on holy ground. That is the bridge of my title.

Selma Police Chief Wilson Baker and his officers controlled the city, but County Sheriff Jim Clark had jurisdiction outside the city. He was a hardline segregationist, who used violence to enforce the Jim Crow laws. He gathered Alabama State troopers wielding nightsticks and tear gas. He also called for every white male 22 years or older to appear to be sworn in as a posse, under an old law. These civilians showed up, many of them on horseback, with long whips and cattle prods used to herd cattle. There were about 200 of these deputies, some of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

When the marchers, led by now Congressman John Lewis, among others, got to the top of the bridge, they were savagely set upon by the state troopers and posse men and were driven back to the church. Jake told us that men on horseback followed the protesters right into the church.

Amelia Boynton, one of the organizers of the March, was beaten unconscious by police, and a photo of her lying bleeding on the bridge was shown nationally in the media. This day’s march is referred to as “Bloody Sunday.”

“Bloody Sunday” was the first of three marches. The second march was called “Turnaround Tuesday” on March 9, 1965. The organizers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) issued a call for clergy and citizens from across the country to join them. Awakened to issues of civil and voting rights by years of Civil Rights Movement activities, and shocked by the television images of “Bloody Sunday,” hundreds of people responded to the call and came to Selma to march.

To prevent another outbreak of violence, SCLC asked for a court order that would prohibit the police from interfering. But instead of issuing the court order, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson issued a restraining order, prohibiting the march from taking place until he could hold additional hearings later in the week.

On March 9, Dr. Martin Luther King led about 2,500 in a brief prayer meeting on the bridge before turning them around, thereby obeying the court order preventing them from making the full march. He was much criticized for this at the time.

Many marchers felt let down, including those who had traveled long distances to participate in the march. King asked them to remain in Selma for another march to take place after the injunction was lifted.

That same evening, three white Unitarian Universalist ministers in Selma for the march were attacked on the street and beaten with clubs by four Ku Klux Klan members. The most severely injured was the Reverend James Reeb from Boston. Fearing that Selma’s public hospital would refuse to treat him, he was taken to Birmingham’s University Hospital, which was two hours away. He died two days later at University Hospital, with his wife by his side.

On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson convened a joint session of Congress, where he outlined his proposed new voting rights bill, and demanded that Congress pass it. In a presentation carried nationally on live television Johnson praised the courage of the African-American activists. He called Selma “a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.” I was a sophomore in High School and watched his speech with my family.

A week after Reverend Reeb’s death, on March 17, Judge Johnson finally ruled with the protesters, saying their First Amendment right to march in protest could not be abridged by the state of Alabama. He wrote:

The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . … These rights may … be exercised by marching, even along public highways.

Judge Johnson had got the go-ahead from President Johnson after the President, knowing that Governor George Wallace had no intention of protecting the marchers, would use Federal powers to do so. President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, and that set the stage for the Third and Final March on March 21, the one that made it all the way from Selma to Montgomery.

This is the march Jake Williams was on with his sisters. The marchers set out protected by 1,900 National Guardsmen, and US Marshalls and members of the FBI. They walked through chilling rain and camped in muddy fields. The route of the march was on US Highway 80, known in Alabama as the “Jefferson Davis Highway.” The marchers averaged about 10 miles a day. On the second day and third day the march went through Jake’s home county, Lowndes County.

Let me tell you about Lowndes County, Alabama, a majority black county, in 1965. In the early Twentieth Century Alabama had passed some of the most restrictive voting laws in the land, with a poll tax and a literacy test. At the time of the march, the population of Lowndes County was 81% black and 19% white, but not a single black person was registered to vote. Not one. There were 2,240 whites registered to vote, a figure that represented 118% of the adult white population (in many Southern counties of that era they left white voters on the rolls after they died or had moved away).

If Jake had any anger or bitterness it never showed. He told us the story of the march in a matter of fact way. But he did tell us about what he called “repercussions” to the march.

Repercussion 1: Jake told us that few sharecroppers participated out of fear of the plantation owners, but the ones that did were kicked out of their homes, and a tent city had to be erected for temporary housing.

Repercussion 2: A black woman who ran a convenience store let the marchers camp in a field she owned. Her suppliers retaliated by denying her supplies, and her business closed.

Repercussion 3: In Montgomery on the last night of the march, the Roman Catholic bishop let the marchers camp at St Jude Catholic School field on a campus that housed the St. Jude Catholic hospital. All the white doctors quit and the hospital closed.

Repercussion 4: Viola Liuzzo, a housewife and mother of 5, traveled from Detroit, Michigan, to Selma for the march. Driving back from a trip shuttling fellow activists to the Montgomery airport, members of the Ku Klux Klan saw her with a black man in her car and chased her for miles along the highway before shooting her in the head and killing her. She was 39 years old. Jake showed us the spot along the Jefferson Davis Highway where she was murdered.

On March 25 the marchers left St. Jude and marched to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery. Dr. King had asked Governor Wallace for permission to address the crowd there, about 25,000 people, but he was refused. So, the organizers rented a flatbed truck and put a podium on it on the street at the foot of the State House. Jake drove us to the spot. It was a few blocks from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King was pastor.

King delivered a speech known as “How Long? Not Long?” Perhaps, you know it. Let me share with you the closing paragraph (if I can get through it):

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?” I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”  “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

On August 6, 1965 President Johnson signed the voting Rights Act that ended Jim Crow, at least in law.

What is the lasting legacy of the Selma to Montgomery March? For one thing it caught the attention of a large segment of the American public and they could no longer turn away from the reality of segregation and injustice. In the decade between the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the Selma march of 1965, the Civil Rights movement had been active in numerous acts of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience throughout the South. These acts had gained more and more attention from the media and the public about inequality and segregation.

Two years before Selma, in 1963, Dr. King had led an economic boycott in Birmingham, and in May a large number of children and students walked out of school and attempted to address the mayor. 959 of them, ages 6-18, were arrested. The next day more students joined the march and Bull Connor famously ordered his Birmingham police to use fire hoses and attack dogs on the children. The pictures on TV from Birmingham shocked many in the nation, and a changing public opinion allowed for the passage the next year of The Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This was a landmark civil rights and labor law in the United States that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.

This law and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became the landmark legislation that dismantled segregation and the Jim Crow Laws. Many felt the battle for civil rights had been won, and the election of Barack Obama in 2008 led many to speak of “a post racial America” in which the United States would be free from racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice.

Sadly, this optimism has been shown to be premature. In 1913 the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that addressed voting discrimination in a 5-4 decision. States wasted little time in putting practices into play to suppress voting along racial lines.

And then there is the issue of mass incarceration. The American Civil Liberties Union says that:

Since 1970, the number of incarcerated people has increased sevenfold to 2.3 million in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime. Not everyone is treated equally in the criminal justice system. Racial bias keeps more people of color in prisons and on probation than ever before. One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys — compared with one of every 17 white boys. Black people are also subject to pretrial detention at a higher rate than white arrestees with similar charges and history.

In 2010 Michelle Alexander, a civil rights litigator and legal scholar, wrote “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” in which she argues that the jailing of young black and brown men is like the Jim Crow laws, using the justice system to enforce racism.

The rise of white supremacist groups out of the shadows and into the public square in the era of Donald Trump reminds us that we haven’t arrived at a post-racial America. The killing of unarmed black people by law enforcement, and the resulting “Black Lives Matter movement are another facet of the conversation. Our United Church of Christ headquarters in Framingham had a “Black Lives Matter” banner removed and vandalized several times.

The debate about the Confederate flag and Confederate war memorials shows how much passion and consternation still exists over who gets to choose which story to tell about our national story around race.

I’d like to end with a couple of personal postscripts. The first is that Martin Luther King and other people of faith in the Civil Rights movement were big influences on me, and are part of what shaped and formed me in ways that led to my going into the ministry.

The second postscript is how my trip to Montgomery alerted me to some of my own blind spots and ways I have got the story wrong or at least incomplete. I once preached a sermon on Martin Luther King Day and afterwards one of my congregants came up to me mad as a wet cat and gave me a tongue lashing. She was from Alabama, a niece of George Wallace, and the gist of her complaint was that “you Yankees always blame the South, as if there is no racial bigotry in the North.”

She had a point. The systematic oppression of the Post-Reconstruction South under Jim Crow is not the only kind of racism there is, although it is a particularly toxic and evil form of it. But here is where I need to make a confession. I was born in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and when I was three, my parents moved us across the Hudson to suburban Bergen County, New Jersey. There I received my education from kindergarten through 12thgrade. During those years I never had a black classmate at my schools. Not one. This came home to me several years ago when I learned that Senator Corey Booker graduated from my high school. When I was there, there were no black students.

My parents were liberal Democrats, and in the Sixties, while we watched Jim Clarke and Bull Connor use violence to put down protestors of racial segregation, we ourselves were living in a segregated community. The segregation in our community was not laid down by law, as In Alabama, but by redlining, the practice of discriminatory lending practices by banks to deny mortgages to minorities based on maps of neighborhoods.

In 2017, I returned to my high school for my fiftieth reunion. One of the little towns I grew up in is largely Korean, and the marching band at the football came was majority Asian. The Congregational Church in that town is now a Korean church.

This is the multi-racial America that so many decry and find threatening. The current anti-immigrant political movement is part of this same backlash. It is estimated that our country will be majority minority by 2045 or 2050. Fewer than half of American children under the age of fifteen are white.

What will the story be that we tell ourselves about who we are as Americans? Will we remember the brave men, women, and children that risked life and limb to non-violently protest and resist their oppression at the hands of the majority? Will we come to terms with our complicated history that includes the story of enslaved people and centuries of racial injustice and bigotry? That is a conversation we need to be having. When I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge last September in Selma, I realized how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.

(I gave this paper to the Monday Evening Club on February 10, 2020.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.