Monday, January 12, 2015

Reflections on Selma

Ministerial Meditations 

by The Rev. Connie Yost  
January 12, 2015

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama

I recently saw the movie Selma, which was a moving and powerful experience.  I urge you all to see it.  It showed the courage and sacrifice that so many had to make in order to get their voices and concerns heard.  It showed the power of people who organize, who persist, whose leaders struggle to make the right decisions and find the most effective tactics.  Above all, it made me remember why I entered the ministry, why the struggle for justice and peace can never be abandoned to cynicism, despair and helplessness.   We need each other in this struggle.  We need a community where we can come together to work for justice, strengthen our faith and hope, and love and be loved.  For me, that is what I find in my Unitarian Universalist community. 

Unitarian Universalist's celebrate Community Ministry the first Sunday in February each year.  Community Ministry extends our UU faith into the larger world, beyond the parish walls.  Our ordained UU Community Ministers work as chaplains in the military, hospices, hospitals and other settings, in various social justice capacities, in the arts, in educational and institutional leadership.  We are called to advocate for the sick, the poor, the oppressed.  We are called to minister to all living beings and the Earth.  We are called to dedicate our lives to the work of justice, peace and love.  I am proud to be a UU Community Minister.

Sick and Tired

A sermon by The Rev. Connie Yost given on UU Community Ministry Sunday February 1, 2009 at the UU Congregation of Salem, Oregon

Bryant Grocery in Money, Mississippi

It was August 24, 1955.  It was a hot day in Money, Mississippi -- humid and sweltering.  A group of black teenagers went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to buy some candy after picking cotton in the fields.  One of them, a fourteen year old boy visiting from Chicago, whistled at white store owner Mrs. Bryant.  A few days later Mr. Bryant and his half brother dragged the boy from his bed at his uncle's house, beat him brutally, shot him in the head, tied a cotton gin to his body with barbed wire, and threw him in the Tallahatchie River.  His name was Emmett Till.

If all had gone as planned, we would never know this young man's name.   But his body was discovered despite the heavy cotton gin weighing it down.  His mother in Chicago made the agonizing decision to have an open casket funeral and to let photographs of his brutalized body be published in a national magazine.  Newspapers across the world carried the story.

Many say that it was this murder that galvanized the modern Civil Rights Movement.  Till's murderers were acquitted in less than an hour by an all-white, all-male jury.  Shortly afterwards, the defendants sold their story, including a detailed account of how they murdered Till.  The murder and the trial horrified the nation and the world. Three months later, the Montgomery bus boycott began.

I visited Money, Mississippi this past December.  There really is not a town there anymore, but I stood in front of Bryant's Grocery -- now just a crumbling shell of a building with "no trespassing" signs posted on it -- and wept for that young man's life. 

I wept for all the years of struggle and blood that has gone into the fight for racial justice.  Of all the places I visited on this Civil Rights trip, this unmarked building, off an obscure highway in the Mississippi Delta, represented for me, the depth of the pain and sacrifice of all those born into slavery and its aftermath.  The place echoed with a mother's grief for her son, whom they said "needed to be taught a lesson."

Ever since I saw a picture of Bryant Grocery in a magazine, I had been wanting to travel to all of the places I had heard about in connection with the Civil Rights movement.  I wanted to better understand what life was like for black children growing up in the 50's and 60's like me.  I wanted to more fully understand the history of the "colored" and "white" signs I saw as a kid living in Florida in 1960.

I began my trip in Memphis, at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in 1968.  It now houses the National Civil Rights Museum.  From there I drove through the Mississippi Delta, through the cotton-growing land that historically had been farmed by black sharecroppers.  At the time of the Civil Rights movement, Mississippi had led the way for antiblack legislation and violence in response to any civil rights effort.  But the Delta also represented the strength and resilience of the black population.  It was here that the blues were born; it was here that blacks were elected to local and national office immediately following the Civil War.  But progress did not last, and in 1890 a literacy test and a poll tax took the vote away from blacks.   But blacks fought back, and filed school desegregation suits and held huge civil right rallies all around the Delta. 

Fannie Lou Hamer, whose voice led us in singing "Go Tell it On the Mountain" was a Delta sharecropper.  When the plantation owner demanded that she withdraw her voter registration application, she refused.  "I didn't go down there to register for you; I went down there to register for myself."  She was thrown off the plantation that same night, and later began working full time as a civil rights activist.  She became a powerful and nationally known movement voice. 
In the summer of 1964, Hamer was the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was organized to challenge Mississippi's all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention.  Bob Moses recalls that her testimony was so powerful and she was so authentic that Lyndon Johnson feared people would flood the credentials committee with telegrams demanding that her party be seated.  When she did address the Convention's Credentials Committee, she recounted the problems she had encountered in registration, and the severe beating she and others had experienced in jail, and, near tears, she said:

"All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings - in America?"

I visited Fannie Lou Hamer's gravesite in Ruleville, Mississippi.  Buried next to her husband, her gravestone reads, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Today we celebrate UU Community Ministry Sunday -- taking time to honor those who work for healing and justice beyond our parish walls.  On my Civil Rights trip I was proud to be a community minister.  I was inspired by all the work that had been done by black ministers and their parishioners in organizing and pastoring to people in the movement.  I visited the parsonage of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the only church that Martin Luther King, Jr. ever pastored.  The movie they showed at the parsonage called him a community minister -- a minister whose love and faith binds the church to the larger community.   I later toured the church itself and got the chance to stand at the pulpit where King first preached his message of hope and unity.

As I traveled from Memphis, through Mississippi and then through Alabama, visiting all the famous sites and some not so famous, what struck me over and over was the incredible amount that was achieved between the 1954 Brown vs. Brown Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

But of course centuries of hardship and struggle and resistance had gone before.  As the movement organized and gained prominence and power, so did the backlash.  You can see the hole on the porch of the Dexter Avenue Church parsonage where the bomb exploded with Mrs. King and their baby inside.  You can see the old fashioned telephone in the hallway which used to ring more than 40 times per day with death threats.  You can see the 1950's Formica dinette table and chairs where Martin Luther King Jr. sat in the wee hours of the morning, holding his head in his hands and struggling to decide if he should stay in the South and risk his and his family's life to do so.

We know he decided to stay and he was eventually martyred.  

The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery is a moving tribute to 40 of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, including UU minister, The Rev. James Reeb[1], who was in Selma preparing to march to Montgomery when he was clubbed by Ku Klux Klan members while walking down the street.   Many feel that because Reeb was white and from the North, his death caused a much greater outcry than the murder of black Jimmie Lee Jackson just two weeks before.   The Rev. Clark Olsen was minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians and survived the attack that fatally injured The Rev. Reeb.  He notes that in response to Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death, President Johnson had received no phone calls; in response to Jim Reeb’s death, the President had gotten 57 calls.  Rev. Clark reflects:  "It's part of the story of civil rights, and the tragedy of civil rights, that it was the death of a white minister that was the final impetus to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  The deaths of any number of blacks had not received anywhere near the amount of attention that a white minister's did."

The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, designed by Maya Lin who did the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, is a powerful testament to those who lost their lives during the Civil Rights movement between 1954 and 1968.  It has water running down a stone wall engraved with these words from the prophet Amos, quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. "… until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

The 40 martyr's names are engraved on a flat, circular stone which also has water running over it.  It was a little too cold that day to run my fingers through the water and over the names, but I looked at each one and marveled at the courage and sacrifice these names represented, knowing that there were many hundreds and thousands more who died whose names we do not know.

The achievement of the Civil Rights movement is a stunning one, but it didn't happen in just those incredible 11 years, and it didn't happen just with the stroke of a pen at the White House.  It happened because people like Fannie Lou Hamer were sick and tired of the ways things were; it happened because they got sick and tired of being sick and tired.  It happened because people organized, because black ministers, leaders and others with means helped organize in areas, like the Mississippi Delta, where the black population was too poor and too beholden to the white landowners to organize themselves.  It happened because people of faith took courage and continued to take courage as the lynchings and killings mounted.   

This is Community Ministry at its absolute purest and best.  And of course the struggle for equal rights is not over.  It now involves multiple races, immigration and issues of rights based upon gender and sexual orientation.  Racism has lost its legal, political, and social standing, but the legacy of racism--poverty, poor education and poor health care--remains with us today.

"They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor," said President Johnson at the end of his voting rights speech. "And these enemies too--poverty, disease, and ignorance--we shall overcome."

It was sheer coincidence that my long-awaited trip to the South came just after we had elected our first black President.   When I visited memorials to the Civil Rights movement, there was much hope in the air.  Columnist Thomas Freidman wrote after the election that “we wake up to a different country. Yes, the struggle for equality is never done. But we can start afresh from a new baseline.   From this day forward:  Everything really is possible in America.”   

On Inauguration Day, I watched the festivities on a big-screen TV in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  The restaurant where we ended up was full of people from all over the world.  This event did not go unnoticed by the many non-Americans, who clapped and became tearful right along with us.  Tears started down my cheeks as soon as Aretha Franklin began to sing.  I'm not sure of everything I was feeling that day, but surely part of my tears was a sense of achievement of the seemingly impossible dream -- not only an African American in the White House, but also public recognition of the long, long road from slavery to civil rights.  And surely another part of my tears was for the hope that swelled in me as our new President spoke words such as faith and determination, humility and restraint, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism, hope and virtue.  I walked away feeling lighter and more hopeful than I have for a long time.

On this UU Community Ministry Sunday, I want to honor all of you who work for healing and justice in our community and abroad.  We know the struggle continues, and we know that each and every one of us is needed in the struggle.  We have opportunities in our local community to positively alter lives for the better -- through the work we do at Congregations Helping People, and through the new tutoring program that I am organizing at Auburn Elementary School.

Are you sick and tired?  I hope you are.  I hope you are sick and tired of being sick and tired.  Because then you will not want to wait, and you will no longer be willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The only thing to do when you are sick and tired is to act.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Reeb had left his parish ministry position at All Souls Church in Washington, DC (Unitarian Universalist), to work toward improved housing for African Americans in Boston’s inner city.  At the time of his death, he was no longer in fellowship as a UU minister, since the Ministerial Fellowship rules at that time only recognized ministers serving a UU congregation.  It is a sad commentary on our struggle to recognize the work and contributions of UU community ministers.

Copyright 2015 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved.