'So Nobly Started'
by Christopher L. Walton
THE MARCH OF TIME
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference (SCLC) begin considering a campaign in Selma, Alabama, where less
than 2 percent of eligible African Americans are registered to vote. Lyndon B.
Johnson is re-elected to the US presidency.
King launches the Selma campaign with a rally at Brown Chapel.
In his State of the Union address, Johnson lists voting rights for all
citizens as a priority of his administration.
"Find the worst condition you can run into ... get it on the radio, get in on
television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings." (President Lyndon
B. Johnson, in a phone call to Martin Luther King, January 15, 1965)
105 black school teachers defy the superintendent and rally at the Dallas
County Courthouse in Selma.
King and 500 schoolchildren are arrested in Selma; 650 African Americans march
in nearby Marion. UU ministers Ira Blalock and Gordon Gibson arrive in Selma to
work with the SCLC. The Rev. Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, president of the UUA,
sends a telegram to King in jail, praising him as a "model of discipline and
non-violence." Greeley urges Johnson and Congress to guarantee voting rights to
"There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls."
(Martin Luther King, writing from the county jail in Selma, February 5, 1965)
Sheriff Jim Clark sends 165 black teens on a forced run out of town, pursued
by patrol cars.
A night march in Marion ends with a brutal attack. Dozens are injured;
26-year-old Jimmy Lee Jackson is shot by a state trooper.
Jackson dies. The SCLC announces a protest march to Montgomery at his memorial
BLOODY SUNDAY 3/7/65
The march from Selma to Montgomery begins, but state troopers and a sheriff's
posse stop the marchers with clubs and tear gas on the far side of the Edmund
Pettus Bridge. TV news footage of "Bloody Sunday" interrupts a program about
Nazi atrocities. King calls religious leaders to join him in Selma.
Dr. Homer Jack receives King's telegram at the UUA offices in Boston and
begins calling UU ministers. Orloff Miller, James Reeb, and Clark Olsen are
among 40 who leave for Selma that night.
450 religious leaders join 2,000 African Americans for a second march over the
Edmund Pettus Bridge. After praying at the site of Sunday's attack, they return
to Brown Chapel. That night, Reeb, Olsen, and Miller are attacked outside a
whites-only restaurant; Reeb is fatally injured.
Reeb dies. Thousands protest outside the White House and in other major
"This was not so much the attempt to murder a man as an attempt to murder the
hopes and dreams of a people." (Martin Luther King, speaking to the press after
learning of Reeb's death, March 11, 1965)
Several hundred UU leaders join hundreds of others in Selma. King speaks at
Reeb's memorial service in Brown Chapel. President Johnson addresses a joint
session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Bill.
"Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really
it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and
injustice. And we shall overcome." (President Johnson addressing Congress,
March 15, 1965. Click here.)
Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a UU laywoman and housewife enrolled at Wayne State
University, decides to go to Selma after participating in a sympathy march in
With the National Guard protecting them, 3,200 marchers leave Selma for
Montgomery. The Rev. Richard Leonard is the only UU among the 300 marchers who
complete the full march.
25,000 demonstrators join the marchers when they reach Montgomery for a final
rally at the state capitol. That night, Viola Liuzzo is shot and killed by Ku
Klux Klansmen as she drives toward Montgomery to pick up a carload of marchers.
Three men are indicted for the murder of James Reeb.
One of the Klansmen arrested for Liuzzo's murder turns out to be an FBI
informer, who testifies against the other three. Each is acquitted.
President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law.
Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, and Father
Richard Morrisroe, a Chicago priest, are released from a week in jail for
participating in a public demonstration in Lowndes County, Alabama. A deputy sheriff
shoots them with a shotgun before they can leave town. Daniels dies instantly;
Morrisroe is seriously injured. The deputy is acquitted of murder charges.
The three men acquitted in Liuzzo's murder are indicted on federal charges of
conspiracy to violate her civil rights. A federal jury convicts them in
The three men charged in the murder of James Reeb are acquitted.
"All Americans should be aroused by the Selma acquittals, which leave
unresolved the murder of James Reeb. Those guilty of the bombings, the
beatings, the killings, and the snipings in the dark cannot remain
unconfronted." (UUA President Greeley, following the verdict)
The UUA installs a memorial to Jackson, Reeb, and Daniels in Brown Chapel. The
UUA also buys a house for Jackson's mother and establishes a fund for his
family, using extra proceeds of more than $100,000 given in Reeb's memory.
he Unitarian Universalist Association was not quite four years old when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent an urgent telegram to its Boston headquarters on March 7, 1965, asking religious leaders and concerned citizens to join him in Selma, Alabama, where African Americans marching for their right to vote had been brutally attacked by lawmen. Two of the Unitarian Universalists who responded to King's appeal paid with their lives. In a way that few deaths do, the murders of the Rev. James J. Reeb and Viola Gregg Liuzzo helped change the course of history. But 36 years after the protests that culminated in the march to Montgomery, new aspects of the story are coming to light. How unfinished our relationship to the past is.
James Reeb had been in Alabama less than a day when white assailants attacked him and two other white Unitarian Universalist ministers on a Selma sidewalk, fatally injuring him with a blow to the head. Reeb's death on March 11, 1965, inspired a wave of nationwide protests, memorial services, and calls for federal action, transforming Reeb into a martyr and creating the political groundswell President Lyndon Johnson needed to introduce new voting rights legislation. Four days after Reeb's death, Johnson invoked his memory -- "that good man" -- as he introduced the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress. Johnson had invited King to attend the historic speech, but King turned him down in order to deliver James Reeb's eulogy in Selma the same day. Somehow King's eulogy has never appeared in print -- until now. Click here to read it.
About 500 Unitarian Universalists, including nearly one-fifth of all Unitarian Universalist ministers, plus laypeople like Viola Liuzzo, went to Selma and Montgomery to participate in the civil rights campaign. Only one Unitarian Universalist, the Rev. Richard D. Leonard, joined the 300-person march all the way from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. The trek concluded Leonard's 18 days in Alabama. The UUA's Skinner House Books is preparing to publish the compelling journal he kept, along with other Unitarian Universalist reminiscences of Selma. Part of Leonard's unpublished journal appears here for the first time. Click here to read it. Another Unitarian Universalist, photojournalist Ivan Massar, also went to Selma. His credentials with the (ironically named) Black Star photo agency alarmed town officials, who refused to issue a press pass -- so he hid his cameras in his coat. Now retired and living in Concord, Massachusetts, he shared his photographs with us, some of which have never appeared in print before. (See page 25.)
This spring, the Unitarian Universalist Association will dedicate a new monument to the hundreds of Unitarian Universalists who took a stand for civil rights in Selma. The monument, which will be installed in Eliot Chapel at the UUA headquarters in Boston, will commemorate James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. It will also commemorate the first martyr of the Selma campaign, 26-year-old African American civil rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson, whose death launched the march to Montgomery. Many African Americans noted bitterly at the time that Jackson's death did not generate a sympathy call from the president of the United States, but that Reeb's death did. The president himself announced the arrest of four Ku Klux Klansmen charged with shooting Viola Liuzzo as she drove back toward Montgomery to pick up more weary marchers, but no one was arrested for the gunshot that killed Jackson. Although Unitarian Universalists who arrived in Selma for Reeb's memorial service learned about Jackson's memorial service there only two weeks before, Unitarian Universalists haven't always remembered him. This magazine revisited Selma in 1996, but the story made no mention of Jackson. The UUA's monument will place Jackson, Reeb, and Liuzzo side by side.
ilmmaker David Taylor, producer of Crossing the Bridge, a documentary about Selma that aired in February on the History Channel, drew on recently declassified recordings of President Johnson's telephone conversations during the months of the Selma campaign. Taylor traced the idea for the march to Montgomery to James Orange, a staff member of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Orange responded to Jackson's death by proposing that they carry Jackson's casket all the way to Governor George Wallace in Montgomery. Although they abandoned the idea, the SCLC announced at Jackson's memorial service on February 26, 1965, that a march to Montgomery would begin on Sunday, March 7. Taylor found that Jackson's death "had a profound impact on the reporting on Selma," convincing the media of the nonviolence of the protestors and the brutality of their opponents. President Johnson may never have mentioned Jimmy Lee Jackson, but the march that began in his honor carried the most important civil rights legislation in 100 years into law.
Unitarian Universalists rallied to the civil rights cause in Alabama, and Selma energized the new UUA. Before returning home from the protests, one lay leader told the Register-Leader, the forerunner of UU World, that "Selma may redeem the Unitarian Universalist movement." But redemption didn't come easily. "We had a great consensus," recalls the Rev. Ed Harris, the chair of the Selma memorial committee, "but within a very short period of time, things that had united us divided us." The moral clarity of Selma -- with its martyrs, its prophetic leader, its focus on constitutional rights -- disappeared in the late sixties. UUA President John Buehrens says that "many of the association's hopes embodied at Selma were crushed," as the Vietnam War, the assassination of King, the black empowerment controversy, and the UUA's financial crisis in 1970 exhausted and disheartened Unitarian Universalists.
But our relationship to the past shifts. Perhaps we are far enough away from the events in Selma to remember them safely. Or perhaps, as the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn says about the UUA's current anti-racism initiative, "It's taken us all these years to get back on track." The Rev. Clark Olsen, who survived the attack that took James Reeb's life, says that 20 years went by before his thoughts about Selma began to mature. His reflections conclude our coverage. Click here to read it. The Rev. Orloff Miller, who was also with Reeb, hopes the UUA's new monument will help us remember -- and prod us to act. He says he has been inspired for 36 years by writer Hermann Hagedorn's words: "We must do a harder thing than dying is. We must think! and ghosts will drive us on."
Christopher L. Walton
is senior editor of
UU World XV:2 (May/June 2001): 18-19.
Finding a Lost Eulogy - by Tom Stites
A Witness to the Truth - by Martin Luther King Jr.
The View from the Balcony - by Richard D. Leonard
The Longest March - by Clark Olsen
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