Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day and My “Cloud of Witnesses”

Memorial Day is a day to remember – particularly those who have fought and died in war. Originally called Decoration Day when it was begun following the Civil War, it was a day set aside to decorate the graves of those who had died in battle. On Memorial Day there are often marches and vigils for former veterans to be remembered.

I have never been one to glorify war, even though I feel deeply sad for those who have had to fight in one – usually not of their own choosing. Thus, I have rarely “celebrated” this day in any way that could be construed as “patriotic.”  However, I do like to pause remember those who have fought and died in the battle for peace and social justice. They are what the writer of Hebrews refers to as the “great cloud of witnesses” who guide me and inspire me by their lives and examples. 

Thus in no particular order let me share just a few of those who I remember as veterans for peace and social justice. While others inspire me who are still living, these are some who have passed on but who live in and thru me in so many ways. The descriptions are in no way comprehensive and are only given for identification purposes.

Martin Luther King, Jr – Civil rights leader, killed in 1968 during a Memphis garbage workers strike.

Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi – leader for freedom and justice in India in the early 20th century

Frederick Douglass – former slave, abolitionist, advocate of rights for women and African Americans in the 19th century

Viola Liuzzo – woman who went to Selma during the march of 1965; murdered by the KKK while transporting marchers back and forth

John Woolman – Quaker in the 18th century who convinced Quakers of relinquish their slaves

Myles Horton – founder of Highlander and educator for civil rights, labor justice and so much more

Henri Nouwen – priest, contemplative, one who sought to link prayer and action in all things

Anne Braden – civil rights activist in Louisville, who along with her husband advocated for equal housing rights for African Americans in the 1950’s, a lifelong activist into her 80’s

Abraham Joshua Heschel – Jewish Rabbi, mystic, friend of Martin Luther King, advocate for justice

Nelson Mandela - South African leader who led the fight to overturn apartheid

Tom Scheuermann – my youth leader (in Young Life) who more than anyone shaped my faith

Kemah Washington – friend and cellmate following our action against a gun shop in 2009

John Rankin – white abolitionist preacher in southern Ohio who sheltered thousands of runaway slaves on their trek North to freedom

Levi Coffin – Quaker abolitionist in Indiana and Cincinnati who helped thousands escaping slavery  to freedom

Reinhold Niebuhr – theologian and public intellectual in the mid 20th century who linked faith and justice

Clarence Jordan – founder of Koinonia farms a deliberately inter-racial Christian community in south Georgia, died in his late 50’s in 1968.

Oscar Romero – Salvadoran Archbishop in El Salvador killed in the 1980’s for his support of of the oppressed of that country

Paulo Freire – Brazilian educator, one who brought literacy to the poor in a way that both educated and empowered them

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – German pastor and theologian killed in a Nazi prison in 1945 shortly before the end of World War II.

Sis Boyd – my mother, my constant supporter, the one who first showed me compassion for the world, died 2005.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Kemah Washington - The Passing of a Great Man and A Good Friend

This past Thursday, May 14 I learned of the passing of a good friend, Kemah Washington. Kemah and I were brought together on a cold January afternoon in 2009, when we joined 10 others in protesting the process of straw purchasing being conducted in and through Colismo’s gun shop. Fred Kaufman, Kemah and I sat down in front of the door leading into the store, when they would not allow us to enter to ask Mr. Colisimo to sign the Responsible Gun Dealer’s Code of Conduct. In and through that protest, the interfaith, gun violence prevention organization Heeding God’s Call was born.

Kemah, Fred and I were put in the same cell, and for much of that time Kemah talked about his late father, Fr. Paul Washington, former rector of Church of the Advocate in North Philly. Fr. Washington was an organizer, an activist, and a man of God who lived his faith out in a pursuit of justice. As one drives down Ridge Ave in North Philly across from Fairmount Park, there is a building size mural of Fr. Washington overlooking a playground – a tribute to Fr. Washington love for the people of North Philly. Kemah told us story after story of the how his father had worked for the improvement of his community, and what an amazing activist and person he was.

Because of his father’s experience and his own efforts to bring about change, Kemah knew what often happened to Black men in a jail cell – they ended staying much longer than need be. I could see that the 12 hours he spent there really wore on him. He confided to me that while he was glad he took part in the action against Colisimos, he didn't want to spend any more time in jail than he had to. I was glad when he was released 12 hours after we were arrested. I stayed another 13 hours, but I am sure it would have run him down; I know it did me.

While not as famous as his father, Kemah was well known in North Philly for his efforts to carry on his father’s mission, sponsoring all sorts of community events, including an incredible jazz festival of local artists and poets. I attended one of those festivals; it was nothing short of amazing. After our arrest and trial, Kemah continued to stand outside Colisimos twice a week calling attention to complicity in the straw purchasing process. I sometimes joined him thru the hot summer days out there, and we would share stories of life. Every time I saw him he simply referred to me as his “cellmate.”

Kemah and I came from different worlds. I grew up in a comfortable Midwestern suburb while he was raised in the stressed community in North Philly. Yet the act of civil disobedience brought us together, and in the midst of our shared experience we realized we had much in common: the love of families, concern for our kids, frustrations with our jobs and a desire to see a safer, less violent city.

In the last few years my main contact with Kemah was through email and Facebook. He was always sending out announcements about various cultural and political events in North Philly from concerts and poetry readings to gatherings to call for the release of death row inmate Abu Mumia Jamal. I had recently heard he had gotten sick and I wanted to reach out to him. I did not realize it was this serious, and now I regret not reaching out earlier. However, mostly I am grateful for having known and shared a special moment –albeit in a grungy, smelly jail cell – with this humble man of God who cared so deeply for people and who touched so many lives – including mine.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Reason for Grief, A Reason for Hope

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,

These opening words to Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities capture my feelings as I read and watch the news from Baltimore.

I woke up this morning to the front page news of riots last night in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray shooting and funeral. The news became more personal because my daughter works at Johns Hopkins University on the northern edge of Baltimore, and the school was closed in response to the violence. I have talked with friends and it seems like the events in Baltimore are more of the same: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Brandon Tate Brown, Tamir Rice and now Freddie Gray. Young Black men killed in confrontations with police.

A couple weeks ago in a course on social justice that I teach to first and second year college students, we read about the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1992 and the riots that followed. None of those 18-20 year old students were alive at that time, and yet the issues were the same that arose  in Ferguson and are at issue in Baltimore: poverty, racial injustice, police brutality, frustration, anger and rioting. Then I thought of 24 years earlier in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and riots that erupted in cities across the country, and again the issues were the same.

As a nation we think we are making progress and for a time we do. Funding for schools is increased, job training is provided, and neighborhoods improve but then as a nation we lose our edge, our vigilance and our concern, and again the forces of inequity and injustice take over. Many scholars have indicated that the inequities we experience today have their roots in the economic and criminal justice policies adopted in the early 1980’s reducing taxes on the rich and corporations, decreasing the services and programs for the poor and targeting drug and criminal enforcement policies in low income communities of color. And so is it any wonder that every 20 years or so, people explode.

I am reminded of the questions raised by Langston Hughes in his classic poem , “A Dream Deferred:”

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

At the same time I see this injustice, I am encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement and other such groups of young people and young adults who have come together to call attention to a whole range of injustices in wages, school funding, police behavior, the right to unionize and so much more. I am encouraged that these groups have allied themselves with more seasoned groups to work 
together for common goals. I have tried to impress upon my students that they are living in historic times, that a social movement is emerging such as not been seen since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and `1960’s, a movement comprise of young and old, of rich and poor, of all races and ethnicities, of gay and straight, of documented and undocumented – all committed to a democracy that works for all and not the privileged few. It’s a movement fueled by anger and frustration, informed by complex social analysis, and facilitated by social media. Moreover, in my view it’s a movement that will not fade or go away but is growing, expanding, and in some places like Philadelphia is becoming a force that politicians and corporate leaders need to listen to. I suspect that is happening elsewhere as well.

So while I grieve the fact that another Black man has died an unnecessary death at the hands of police authorities, and it baffles me how law enforcement personnel don’t seem to be getting the message that these sorts of incidents will no longer go unnoticed, and I am saddened by the looting and violence that has occurred, I see a reason for hope. In a poem to former priest, Nicaraguan leader, and poet Ernesto Cardenal, Robert McAfee Brown wrote:

You have shown us
that beauty also dwells
in misery’s environs
and by its presence here
can work huge transformations

You have shown us
that there is nothing more beautiful
than a human face
on fire with the love of justice*

I pray that like Ernesto Cardenal, the tragic death of Freddie Gray and so many others can give us faces on fire with a thirst and love for justice that will not be quenched until transformation comes.

* poem by Robert McAfee Brown "To Ernesto: Poet/Revolutionary in Liberation Theology: an Introductory Guide

Pictures from Google Images

Friday, April 10, 2015

Some Thoughts from Ann Lamott

Many people have found the writings of Ann Lamott to be insightful, humorous, irreverent yet inspiring. This past month has been extremely stressful for me, and recently a friend sent me this Ann Lamott reflection on the eve of her 61st birthday. As one who will be 61 for a few more months I found these words remarkably relevant. However, I suspect that one could find them helpful at 21, 31, 91 or any age. So let me share these words from Ann Lamott's Facebook page. I find them all helpful at this time, but especially #2 and #4. Enjoy.

I am going to be 61 years old in 48 hours. Wow. I thought I was only forty-seven, but looking over the paperwork, I see that I was born in 1954. My inside self does not have an age, although can't help mentioning as an aside that it might have been useful had I not followed the Skin Care rules of the sixties, ie to get as much sun as possible, while slathered in baby oil. (My sober friend Paul O said, at eighty, that he felt like a young man who had something wrong with him.). Anyway, I thought I might take the opportunity to write down every single thing I know, as of today.

1. All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It has been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.

2. Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.

3. There is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of last way, unless you are waiting for an organ. You can't buy, achieve, or date it. This is the most horrible truth.

4. Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to their outsides. Also, you can't save, fix or rescue any of them, or get any of them sober. But radical self-care is quantum, and radiates out into the atmosphere, like a little fresh air. It is a huge gift to the world. When people respond by saying, "Well, isn't she full of herself," smile obliquely, like Mona Lisa, and make both of you a nice cup of tea.

5. Chocolate with 70% cacao is not actually a food. It's best use is as bait in snake traps.
6. Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart--your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it's why you were born.

7. Publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and sometimes nearly-evil men I have known were all writers who'd had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published (see #1.). Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won't, it can't. But writing can. So can singing.
8. Families; hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. (See #1 again.) At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in half of all cases, it's a miracle that this annoying person even lived. Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants. When Blake said that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, he knew that your family would be an intimate part of this, even as you want to run screaming for your cute little life. But that you are up to it. You can do it, Cinderellie. You will be amazed.

9. Food; try to do a little better.

10. Grace: Spiritual WD-40. Water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as He or She loves your grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and our world. To summon grace, say, "Help!" And then buckle up. Grace won't look like Casper the Friendly Ghost; but the phone will ring, or the mail will come, and then against all odds, you will get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness, even if you are sick of me saying it.

11. God; Goodnesss, Love energy, the Divine, a loving animating intelligence, the Cosmic Muffin. You will worship and serve something, so like St. Bob said, you gotta choose. You can play on our side, or Bill Maher's and Franklin Graham's. Emerson said that the happiest person on earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot, and look up. My pastor says you can trap bees on the floor of a Mason jar without a lid, because they don't look up. If they did, they could fly to freedom.

11. Faith: Paul Tillich said the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. If I could say one thing to our little Tea Party friends, it would be this. Fundamentalism, in all its forms, is 90% of the reason the world is so terrifying. 3% is the existence of snakes. The love of our incredible dogs and cats is the closest most of us will come, on this side of eternity, to knowing the direct love of God; although cats can be so bitter, which is not the god part: the crazy Love is. Also, "Figure it out" is not a good slogan.
12. Jesus; Jesus would have even loved horrible, mealy-mouth self-obsessed you, as if you were the only person on earth. But He would hope that you would perhaps pull yourself together just the tiniest, tiniest bit--maybe have a little something to eat, and a nap.

13. Exercise: If you want to have a good life after you have grown a little less young, you must walk almost every day. There is no way around this. If you are in a wheelchair, you must do chair exercises. Every single doctor on earth will tell you this, so don't go by what I say.

14. Death; wow. So f-ing hard to bear, when the few people you cannot live without die. You will never get over these losses, and are not supposed to. We Christians like to think death is a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live fully again in your heart, at some point, and make you smile at the MOST inappropriate times. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. All truth is a paradox. Grief, friends, time and tears will heal you. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk. The first thing God says to Moses is, "Take off your shoes." We are on holy ground. Hard to believe, but the truest thing I know.

I think that's it, everything I know. I wish I had shoe-horned in what E.L. Doctorow said about writing: "It's like driving at night with the headlights on. You can only see a little aways ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way." I love that, because it's teue about everything we try. I wish I had slipped in what Ram Das said, that when all is said and done, we're just all walking each other home. Oh, well, another time. God bless you all good.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

A Holy Day – A Day to Remember and Recommit

Today on this Holy Saturday, the day between the death of Jesus on a rough Roman cross and the glorious celebration of his rising from death to new Life and Hope, we also remember the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. The night before he had risen from his sick bed fighting his own frustration and depression at the struggle in the movement for civil rights and economic justice to deliver his final sermon. He went to a church called Mason Temple in midst of a wind and rain storm where a filled-to-overflowing crowd awaited his message. In that sermon he called people to act in solidarity with the sanitation workers who were protesting their deplorable working conditions. He reminded people of the struggles that led to thehard fought victories that had been waged and won in cities throughout the South. Then, he ended by calling to mind the image of Moses who saw the Promised Land to which he had been leading people but which he did not enter saying

“…I’ve been to the mountaintop….And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land ….”

Dr. King did not see his vision fulfilled as he was killed the next day while joking with friends on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. He did not reach the Promised Land, nor have we. While we did not necessarily need to be reminded of it, recent events in Ferguson, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement have made clear that we have not yet arrived. We are still striving, praying, and pushing toward that vision.

Thus, it seems wholly appropriate that the anniversary of his death would fall this year on Holy Saturday, a day set between the reality of suffering and the fulfillment of hope. It is wholly appropriate that his death would fall on the first full day of Passover, that event which marks the beginning of the Hebrew people’s journey to the Promised Land to which Dr. King alluded. It seems wholly appropriate that today thousands will march in Philadelphia (and I suspect elsewhere) for economic justice, to advocate that the minimum wage be raised to $15 per hour. It is wholly appropriate for this is a holy day, a day set apart for remembering and recommitting to the journey where Dr. King’s vision, and the dream of millions that racial and economic justice can be achieved.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Is it Time to Push the BS Button?

Recently, as a belated Christmas present, a friend gave me a Bullshit (BS) Button. Similar to the Staples patented Easy Button, this button says “Bullshit” in about five different ways. Now I am not a person who curses a lot. Yes, an occasional “damn” does come out, and I do reserve the right to call someone who cuts me off on the highway an “a**hole,” but rarely do I use profanity. However, there are times when a good swear word is the only thing that is appropriate to say. The BS button is a tool for just such special moments --- like the state of Indiana’s recent passage of a law that allows business owners to discriminate against LGBT folks on the basis of religious beliefs or convictions. In essence the bill states that if a business owner is charged with discrimination, a legitimate defense of such an action is his/her religious belief. While the bill does not specifically mention gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered folks, the intent of the bill (much like the HobbyLobby decision of the Supreme Court last summer) is to justify discrimination against LGBT folks on religious grounds.

Criticism has been swift and strong from the business community, including the CEO of Apple who is openly gay, and the NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis and will hold its National Basketball championship there next week. Even those businesses that choose not to discriminate will be hurt by those that do, so the bill makes no sense from a business perspective. Moreover, one has to wonder about the logistics of enforcing an anti-gay policy (“How will you be paying for that Sir? Cash or credit? Gay or straight?”). But for me the issue comes down to a simple issue of justice. In the same way not allowing Black people to eat at lunch counters in the 1960’s or requiring poor White and Black voters to take special literacy tests before they could vote I the 50’s and 60’s, such bill is just plain wrong. As Martin Luther King makes clear in his “Letter from a Birmingham jail” there are just and unjust laws; this one is unjust. It deserves a push of the BS button.

However, I realize that the impact of this recent development hits perilously close to home and that is why it bothers me so much. While my local church, West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, is open and fully affirming of LGBT folks in all aspects of church life, the Mennonite denomination of which we are a part is in a “discernment period” over whether or not to take a stand for or against same sex relationships across the denomination, and whether churches like mine that have taken an affirming stand should be allowed to stay in the denomination. Even closer to home, my employer, Eastern University, a faith-based institution historically related to the American Baptist Churches USA, has become engaged a process of learning and discussion after the president of the university joined the heads of several other Christian colleges and universities signed a letter to President Obama requesting that faith-based schools be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in its hiring practices on the basis of the separation of church and state. When news of the president’s action became public, the reaction from many alumni and faculty was swift and strong, and caused the president to call for a time of discussion. I am serving on a task force set up to organize and guide the learning and discussion process.

Those who want to somehow restrict the presence and/or behavior of LGBT folks in these situations seek to frame the discussion as a moral issue based on fidelity to certain Biblical texts and church tradition. However, for me the flimsy Biblical evidence (which is clearly rooted in ancient beliefs about human anatomy and culture) is far outweighed by the Biblical call to love all people and to seek justice on behalf of those who are marginalized or oppressed. More than that, the impulse to discriminate denies the contributions of LGBT folks (open or closeted) to the church and society in general. As for church tradition, anyone reading church history knows that many times the church has gotten it wrong on a host of issues (war, racism, anti-Semitism, slavery, women, child abuse, etc.), and that this too is one of those times. Basing one’s prejudices against LGBT folks on the basis of the Bible, church tradition or the separation of church and state is….. well, I am tempted to hit the BS button.

There have been some denominations like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and
more recently the Presbyterian Church USA that have taken stands affirming the role and participation of LGBT folks in the life of the church. While the official Roman Catholic poistion remains exclusionary, Pope Francis has taken a more moderating view . Even so. there are still a large number of denominations like mine that have not taken that clear stand. In those denominations there are a large number of faithful Christians who either oppose same sex relationships, or are not sure where they stand and have remained silent. I am sure there are others who privately are sympathetic to LGBT rights, but for various reasons have not spoken up. Because of these churches and these folks, bills like that which passed this week in Indiana and court decisions like were rendered in the Hobby Lobby case are allowed to continue. I grant people the right to hold beliefs on this issue that differ from each other, but when those beliefs carry with them the power of law they become oppressive and abusive.

Recently, David Gushee, a Christian ethicist from Mercer University spoke at Eastern and contended that within church circles, we are living in “a moment of transformative encounters with God and people leading to paradigm shifts” that in the next 15 years will lead to greater openness in the Christian church to LGBT folks. I hope he is correct. However, as I look at what happened in Indiana and listen to the tired moral arguments seeking to justify discrimination, I must counter that this is not an issue of morality but of justice.  And amidst these internal Christian debate, while I have resisted to this point, I must admit at times I am tempted push the BS button.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Selma: Then and Now

Today (March 7) thousands of people, including several members of Congress and President Obama, have gathered in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, in which thousands of courageous individuals marched 50 miles demanding Voting Rights for Black people in Alabama. On this day 50 years ago a much younger John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette led a group of about 600 folks lined up two by two over the Edmund Pettis Bridge leading out of Selma. Before they could even cross the bridge, they were met by a phalanx of
local and state police officers in military gear and on horse backs, who sprayed tear gas and beat them with clubs, literally driving them back over the bridge. The march had been organized after a young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was beaten to death by a police officer during a protest for voting rights in a nearby town. That day, which came to called “Bloody Sunday,” brought national attention to Selma. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went on television and called on people from outside the South, particularly clergy, to come to Selma to support their cause, and three weeks later, 8000 people marched over the bridge, and the same police who had beaten folks three weeks earlier, were now ordered by the state and federal governments to protect the marchers on their walk.

While anyone who has seen the recent movie “Selma” knows the outline I just shared, there is so much more to the story, then and now. Eighteen months ago , while on a Civil Rights bus tour led by Dr. Todd Allen, I was in Selma and met Rev. Fredrick Reese, a pastor, school teacher and local organizer, who had been leading marches demanding the right to vote to the Selma City Hall for years before it came to national attention. Our tour through Selma was led Mrs. Joanne Bland, who when she was 14 years old joined hundreds of other young people who march to the court house demanding their parents’ right to vote.
We saw Brown Chapel where people gathered as they prepared to march on Bloody Sunday. We walked over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, drove the 50 miles between Selma and Montgomery, and stood in front of the state capital in Montgomery where Dr. King proclaimed:

I know you are asking today “How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long because truth pressed to earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Five months later the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, assuring all people, regardless of race, the right to vote.

Over the past three years, I have been writing a book (due to be published this fall – title yet to be
determined) telling the stories of White people in U.S. history who worked alongside People of Color
for racial justice. Two of the stories I have written involve Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, two of the hundreds of White people who joined their Black brothers and sisters in Selma. During the evening following King’s stirring Montgomery speech, Viola Liuzzo was killed by members of the KKK as she was driving between Selma and Montgomery after having driven some marchers back to Selma so they could begin their trek home. On our trip to Selma, we also paused at a memorial to Viola Liuzzo, which was erected at the spot where her car was driven off the road and she died. Having spent weeks learning and writing her story, for me pausing at the monument was a moving and solemn moment.

In my research I also reviewed the story of Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister who was beaten by who was beaten by some angry White thugs before the march began. In a recent  New York Times article,  Rev Clark Olsen, who was with James Reeb the night of his death, and who also was beaten but survived, shared his reflections of that night and of the march itself. Rev Olsen struggled for years with “survivor’s guilt, ” but also recognized that racism was even at work in the way the country, and especially President Johnson, responded to Reeb’s death. While the march was precipitated by the death of a Black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, it took the death of a White man, James Reeb, to get the nation as a whole to act. Following Jackson’s death, there was no national media coverage, but Reeb’s death was front page news, and precipitated marches all over the country and over fifty phone calls to the White House demanding the president act in some way. Shortly after Reeb’s death, President Johnson went before Congress to propose the passing of the Voting Rights Act. In his speech he mentioned Rev. Reeb, but not Mr. Jackson.

Many Black activists today are rightly critical of White activists who use their White privilege to call attention to their efforts to fight racism. Despite the legitimacy of this charge, as a White person at times I have found that privilege is thrust upon me without my consent or knowledge. So too James Reeb; he did not ask for this attention, nor did Viola Liuzzo, but unfortunately it took their deaths to wake White people across the nation to the horrors of racism. Unfortunately, not much has changed in fifty years. The “Black Lives Matter” movement that has emerged following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has come about because just as Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death was not valued as much as James Reeb’s, so too the deaths of young Black men today too often don’t spawn the outrage that the death of White folks do.

The march from Selma to Montgomery addressed issues that are still as relevant in 2015 as they were in 1965. Like in Selma, today there are thousands of ordinary people working and marching for racial justice. Like in Selma, today there are public officials who need to be confronted with policies and laws that dehumanize People of Color. Like in Selma, today the media places higher value on White lives than Black lives. Like in Selma, today the struggle continues, as we trust in Dr. King’s vision that “the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice.”

[Photos by the author and from Google images]