Category Archives: Civil Rights

On the Body

Seems like one of the things that separates us from most animals is that we grieve our dead, and treat the bodies of those who pass with care and respect. Our religions tell us exactly how to treat the bodies of the dead; our legends and beliefs try to explain what happens to their bodies in the afterlife.

Whether “we believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, Amen” or the great corpse hall at Valhalla, or reincarnation, or that we should be washed, enshrouded, and buried facing Mecca, we are united as humans in that this mortal vessel should be treated with ritual and reverence.

The disturbing images — the ones from war and epidemic and evil — are the ones that show the bodies of our dead who haven’t had that final work of corporal mercy extended to them. It’s the pictures of the bloated corpses shot and lying in the street in a civil war, loved ones to far gone or too endangered to bury them. It’s the mass graves in the jungles where the protesters knelt before being executed. It’s the scenes of the morgues in an epidemic where even the burial teams cannot keep up. It’s the earthquake or flood or typhoon so deadly that homes and shops transform to sepulchers.

Bodies in the street means that there’s a war. Bodies in the street means that civil society is not in charge. Bodies in the street mean that disease and disaster are greater than thousands of years of human ritual and tradition. Bodies in the street scream holocaust and famine.

Did anyone attempt to revive or administer aid to Michael Brown as he lay in the street?

No.

Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. For four hours, in August.  

Did anyone attempt to revive or administer aid to Walter Scott as he lay in the street?

No. Walter Scott was handcuffed after he was shot down. According to The New York Times,

Police reports say that officers performed CPR and delivered first aid to Mr. Scott. The video shows that for several minutes after the shooting, Mr. Scott remained face down with his hands cuffed behind his back. A second officer arrives, puts on blue medical gloves and attends to Mr. Scott, but is not shown performing CPR. As sirens wail in the background, a third officer later arrives, apparently with a medical kit, but is also not seen performing CPR.

Today we mark 150 years of freedom for Americans of African descent. We are decades from our Gettysburg, our Antietam. We have the great good fortune that the era of our own civil war stretches so far back as to be two lifetimes ago.

And yet, there are sometimes bodies in the street.

We are still not that perfected union.

To my white brothers and sisters: we may not feel the long shadow of our national racial legacy. We may feel free to ignore it, or be silent.  We can hide behind our respect for law enforcement and point out the reasons that deadly force was needed.

But our silence is merely an equivocation. We can respect and thank law enforcement that truly protects and defends all Americans.  We can continue to demand that justice be attended to swiftly, thoroughly, and without prejudice. That in the people’s democracy, that city on a hill, we don’t believe in bodies in the streets.

What we as white Americans need to get is this: our nation has a brutal history with the black body. Fulani and Igbo bodies sent overboard deep into the Atlantic in chains. Black bodies worked and whipped to death to enrich a plantation owner. Strange fruit borne upon the boughs of Southern trees as Jim Crow-era lynchings kept Americans intimidated and oppressed.  How that brutality is underscored and echoed whenever black men are shot by police using excessive force.

Dr. Bernard Lafayette spoke to us in Alabama about intimidation. He spoke about the only way to be well and truly sure in the Jim Crow era that a man wouldn’t protest was to hang him from the neck until dead.  That the most effective way to silence was to kill.

The end of his speech shocked me back into the present:  “I can’t breathe. I can’t BREATHE. I. CAN’T. BREATHE!! I CAN’T BREATHE.

What Wondrous Love Is This: Good Friday, Civil Rights Edition

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!

Non-violent resistance at lunch counter sit-ins.
Non-violent resistance at lunch counter sit-ins.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this

Ruby Bridges
Ruby Bridges

That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine.
Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine.

To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,

Fire hoses in Birmingham.
Fire hoses in Birmingham.

When I was sinking down
Beneath God’s righteous frown,

John Lewis beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma. March 7, 1965.
John Lewis beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma. March 7, 1965.

Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.

To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb I will sing;

Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March, 1965.
Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March, 1965.

To God and to the Lamb,
Who is the great I AM,

Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March, 1965.
Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March, 1965.

While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,

Segregation protest.
Segregation protest.

While millions join the theme, I will sing.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;

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Viola Liuzzo, martyr of Selma.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, martyr of Selma.
Jimmie Lee Jackson, martyr of Selma.

And when from death I’m free

James Reeb, martyr of Selma.
James Reeb, martyr of Selma.

I’ll sing His love for me,

Jonathan Daniels, martyr of Selma.
Jonathan Daniels, martyr of Selma.

And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,

And through eternity I’ll sing on.

Twelve miles in the mist. With a baby. Again.

When I mention that Edith and are coming from Seattle, nine times out of ten my fellow marchers will chuckle and say, “Oh, you’re used to this.”

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Photo: Lauren Hughes

For our two long days (12-13 miles) we’ve had cloudy skies, mist, rain, the occasional shower. It’s been great, since carrying Edith is like having my own personal furnace, I appreciate the temperatures not hitting the 80s while we’re on asphalt. And the marching songs are invigorating:

Pick ’em up

And set ’em down

All the way

From Selma town

The theme today was on martyrs for the cause. A sobering, sobering reality after flying so high on the heels of Dr. Bernard Lafayette’s talk and following our triumphant entry to the site of “Tent City.:  It was a quiet, contemplative day. A long walk in the rain. A visit to a memorial for a young mother.

When we got tired, we held up four fingers. Four for the martyrs of the Voting Rights March.

Jimmie Lee Jackson — a pulp mill worker, a deacon, and a man who had tried to register to vote five times. At the time of his death defending his mother and grandfather, he never had. His brutal killing at the hands of Alabama state troopers was the catalyst for the march.

Rev. James Reeb — a Unitarian minister, an advocate for social justice, a white man. He answered Dr. King’s call for clergy to come to Selma for peaceful witness. Reverend Reeb was beaten to death by white separatists in the days after Bloody Sunday. President Johnson sent yellow roses and his best wishes to the hospital for Reverend Reeb.  Reverend Reeb’s death — the death of a “white man of God” was another powerful message to wake a nation to the sickness of systematically denying fellow citizens franchise.

Viola Liuzzo — a mother of five, a woman of faith, an NAACP activist in Detroit, she answered the call from Selma. While driving back to Selma after the march ended successfully in Montgomery, she was shot by the Klan. Her passenger, a Black man named Leroy Martin, smeared her blood all over himself so that by lying still the Klan members would also think he was also dead. Her last essence of life protected his.

Jonathan Daniels — a young Episcopal seminarian, he heard the call and stayed in Selma. Working with a Catholic priest and several other young people, Jonathan died trying to integrate a convenience store in Lowndes County. He gave his life when a white “deputy” pulled a gun on a young, Black woman activist and Daniels stepped in the way. The Voting Rights Act was eleven days old.

So you think about those martyrs, and your baby’s not so heavy. Your feet aren’t that sore. Your legs aren’t that tight.

March on.

What’s Your Selma?

What’s your Selma?

This question has been woven into the very fabric of our time on the trail. We talk about the history of course, and interlace our stories onto this holy landscape.

What’s your Selma?

For one lovely couple from South Carolina, it’s been the freedom to marry. Following in the footsteps of the non-violent protesters who integrated lunch counters, they’ve applied, repeatedly, for a marriage license. Same county office. Same county employee. Crew of allies and supporters in tow, video rolling.

Denied.

Denied.

Denied.

Denied.

Denied.

Denied.

Denied.

Are you that brave?

Have you ever been to a better party than the one they’re gonna throw this fall when they’re finally able to marry?

What’s your Selma? I had a long talk with a young woman this morning whose life was an itinerant one, bounced from foster care to adoption to having to do adulthood with no support after age eighteen. She got through college. She’s a keen and sensitive and instantly warm and safe person to be with. I loved hoofing up a hill with her.

She’s at this beautiful juncture of spiritual growth and discernment, spending a year with a lay religious organization to live in intentional community. I heard her stories of how she reflected and processed her life’s traumas…how it’s shaping her vocation and her faith life. She’s working with low-income people with mental illnesses; it’s a way for her to give back to a population that includes some of the close family members that she was unable to continue living with as a child.

She moved across the country to plunge into service, seeing the same kinds of wounds that had rent her own childhood.

Are you that brave?

What’s your Selma? I walk alongside people with physical disabilities and chronic diseases that make this march a painful one. People who were accustomed to serving others now need to ask for a ride, seek reasonable accommodations for their limitations, and continue to advocate for their own accessibility when their bodies are so achy and worn out after miles and miles.

Are you that brave?

What’s your Selma? Meandering along, I hear snippets. Stories of unplanned pregnancies, divorce, poverty, immigration, job burnout, accidents, diagnoses.

There are people here from places we may easily, viscerally associate with the scary or backward or regrettable things in America.

“Where you coming from?”

“I’m from Ferguson, Missouri.”

“South Side.”

“The Bronx.”

“Mississippi”

“The ghetto.”

Yet those geographies have produced a vibrant group of committed, large-hearted, engaged citizens. Our country is better for each of them. Our country is better for our Selmas.

All this weaving into a place that was once one of the toughest, the scariest, the most violent in America. It’s bringing out those dark corners in all our lives.

Last night Dr. Bernard Lafayette talked about what we would learn on the march. “It’s an emotional education,” he told us. You can watch footage, read books — but you will learn what you need to about the march by marching.

But perhaps like James Bevel, it’s not that we know exactly what we want to do and how to do it when we GET to Montgomery…it’s that we’ve got a long stretch of road…and the solidarity of community…to think it and walk it out.

What’s your Selma?

Looking ahead: Day 2

Today is a long stretch along Highway 80. Cotton grows in the median here, and there’s been a lot of dead possums on the side of the road. Birds of prey circle overhead, and moss dangles languid from the trees.

Rain’s in the forecast.

Sometimes the great wonder is seeing how far we’ve come. Alabama State Troopers and city police are there alongside us, giving us the right of way and holding traffic so that we’ve got the right of way. And many of those law enforcement members are African-American.  When you think about the role the state troopers played on Bloody Sunday 50 years ago, it’s very poignant to see them supporting this peaceful assembly.

Here are some photos from the first day of the march, published in the Montgomery Advertiser.

And tonight’s a talk with Dr. Bernard Lafayette.

March Day 1: March 21

Each day we start at the National Park Service Lowndes Interpretive Center for a briefing and then hop onto shuttles to the site of where the marchers were 50 years before.

Abernathy Children with Dr. King
Abernathy Children with Dr. King

The first day of the March begins, as it did 50 years before, at the Brown AME Chapel. We will be joined by some of the original footsoldiers of the 1965 Voting Rights March for a Mass Meeting. A local Boy Scout troop will lead the flag raising, and then we’ll walk through downtown Selma, cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and then the real hoofing begins!  We’ll end our day with a discussion with family members at the David Hall Farm, the first campsite along the route.

Follow along on my nifty map, which I’m updating as we go.