Selma’s challenge

violent police assault on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, in 1965

In the past, our religious forebears had stood on the brink of making a difference in racial justice, and had wavered. Not this time.

Image: Images of the violent police assault on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 outraged white Americans and helped inspire support for the Voting Rights Act. (AP Photo)

© 1965 AP Photo


In the early hours of Monday, March 8, 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dispatched a telegram that read:

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all of America. No American is without responsibility. All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Selma to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all America help to bear the burden. I call therefore, on clergy of all faiths representative of every part of the country, to join me for a ministers’ march to Montgomery on Tuesday morning, March 9th. In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.

Along with much of the country, the Rev. Orloff Miller, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Office of College Centers, had watched the attack on civil rights marchers when it exploded across the network news the night before. So he wasn’t surprised when the Rev. Homer Jack, who directed the UUA Social Responsibility Department, called on Monday morning to say the UUA had received a telegram from King. After a quick consultation with Jack, and with a copy of the telegram in hand, he began phoning across the country to the college center clergy with whom he worked.

The Rev. James Reeb was in his office in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury when the call from the UUA came at around noon. Reeb, a white American, had forsaken parish ministry to work and live in the African-American community. He wanted to go to Selma. After a hectic afternoon, he went home to talk with his wife. Marie Reeb, as the parent responsible for taking care of their four children, including an infant, questioned why he needed to go. They had walked side by side during the March on Washington in 1963, but having watched the broadcast the night before, she knew this march was different. She strenuously objected, while he steadfastly insisted, until, reluctantly, she ceded to the urgency of his need.

Miller spent hours on the phone, including a call to his wife, Mary Jane. Mindful that they had two young children, she said, “I don’t want you to go, but I know you feel you must.” Late that afternoon, when his appointments were done, Miller gathered together a small spiral notebook, a large yellow legal pad, a tiny Minox camera, and a toothbrush. His wife picked him up and he took her out to celebrate her thirty-fourth birthday.

In Berkeley, California, the Rev. Clark Olsen, minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians, was driving his Plymouth Valiant convertible and listening to the noon news when he heard of King’s appeal. He wanted to go. What stood in the way wasn’t his fragile health—due to a heart damaged long before by two bouts of rheumatic fever—but rather, a lack of money for the airfare. When he arrived home he found a message waiting: A couple from his congregation had offered to pay his way. He immediately had a conversation with his wife and decided to go. Like Reeb and Miller, Olsen had a child—a three-year-old daughter.

After Miller’s wife dropped him at Logan Airport, he spotted Reeb at the ticket counter. By 11 p.m. Monday night they, along with a dozen others, were on their way to Atlanta.

By Tuesday morning Miller and Reeb were in Selma; coming from the West Coast, Olsen arrived that afternoon. They ate dinner together in Walker’s Café, while down the block fate awaited them.

People converged on Selma: clergy and laity, men and women, blacks and whites, Catholics, Ortho­dox Christians, Protestants, Jews, Unitarian Univer­salists, and atheists. They came from across the United States and Canada. The events of March 1965 in that county seat in Alabama’s Black Belt represented a pivotal moment in American history. For over three weeks, the unfolding drama held the world’s attention. It was a cultural upheaval in which hope confronted intransigence. Protest was met with fury. Violence begot sacrifice and suffering. Blood was spilled, and the slayings of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African American activist, and James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, two white UUs, triggered a transfiguration. This twentieth-century continuation of the American Revolution was a spiritual battle that brought the country closer to the freedom proclaimed in the Constitution and granted by the Emancipation Proclamation, but reneged upon following the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Unitarian Universalists did not know that Selma would become a pivotal moment in their own history. In the past, our religious forebears had stood on the brink of making a difference in racial justice, and had wavered. But not this time. Called, sent, drawn, or compelled, hundreds responded. When they left there were two UU martyrs in their hearts and there was conviction in their stride. They had been changed in ways their lives would reveal but which words could never quite capture.

Five months after the attack on Selma’s marchers, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, ending overt racial discrimination in voter registration. Hundreds of thousands of previously excluded African Americans immediately registered to vote. Fifty years later, voting rights have re-emerged on the U.S. agenda. Conservative state legislatures have introduced new restrictions following the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that overturned a key part of the law. In March 2015, Unitarian Universalists are returning to Selma to mark the anniversary, but King’s challenge could have issued today from North Carolina, where new restrictions that disproportionately affect African Americans and poor voters have become law, or from Ferguson, Missouri, where for two weeks this past August police in military gear pointed semiautomatic weapons and fired tear gas at African Americans protesting the police killing of a black teenager named Michael Brown. “No American is without responsibility,” King proclaimed, and by going to Selma fifty years ago, Unitarian Universalists came to feel that its struggle was also their own.

A day after King sent his telegram, about forty-five UU ministers and fifteen laypeople had arrived in Selma. Among them was Emily Taft Douglas, who had been the last moderator of the American Unitarian Association. She was also the wife of Senator Paul Douglas from Illinois. Lillian Crompton Tobey, the widow of the late Senator Charles Tobey from New Hampshire, was there as well. Other UUs were en route, and more would come when they heard of James Reeb’s death—including Viola Liuzzo from Detroit.

After dinner, Miller, Olsen, and Reeb walked three abreast: Reeb next to the curb, then Miller, then Olsen. They crossed an alley. Four or five white locals came out of a variety store behind them on the opposite side of the street and began yelling, “Hey, you niggers.” Olsen, Miller, and Reeb sped up, but the men ran at them. Olsen, who was furthest from the curb, saw them best. “They attacked us from behind, at least one carried a large club—possibly a baseball bat or length of pipe—with which he took a roundhouse swing at Jim’s head.” He and Miller heard it land.

Having arrived in Selma late and not received instructions about what to do in a violent confrontation, Olsen backed away. But one of the men came after him, landing a punch that staggered him and sent his glasses flying. Miller dropped to the ground, doubled up, and tried, as he’d been trained, to shield his head, but one kick landed on his forehead, leaving an imprint that is still visible. Reeb was also on the ground, lying stunned; as their attackers kicked them, they yelled, “You want to know what it’s like to be a nigger around here?”

The assailants landed a few more kicks, then fled. Miller and Olsen were bruised and Reeb dazed; they had to help him stand. By the time they had staggered to the SCLC office around the block to ask for help, Reeb was in great pain.

In the black infirmary, Reeb lay on a stretcher, grimacing. Olsen held his hand as the pain worsened. Reeb’s grip tightened; then it went limp as he lapsed into unconsciousness.

On Thursday, March 11, Marie Reeb made the decision to stop using artificial means to keep her husband alive. President Johnson called to offer her his condolences. Martin Luther King Jr. called, too.

On Saturday, the UUA Board recessed its meeting in Boston and eight members flew to Birmingham. By the time King memorialized Reeb in Selma’s Brown Chapel on Monday, March 15, at least 109 UU ministers had gathered in Selma. UUA President Dana McLean Greeley joined ecumenical leaders on the podium with King and led the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer.

That evening President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, and uttered the now famous words with which he introduced the Voting Rights Bill:

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted, one good man, a man of God, was killed.

Two days later, word spread that a federal judge would permit the 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery and ordered that it be protected by both the state and federal governments. It would take place on Sunday. The judge’s ruling stipulated that as many as wished could walk on the first and last days of the march, when they would be on a four-lane highway; but on the middle days, when they would be on the two-lane Route 80, the march would be limited to 300.

In Selma and Montgomery, and across the country, people began to prepare. Jane Boyajian, the director of religious education at the UU congregation in Fairfax, Virginia, had been attending local SCLC meetings. The Rev. Walter Fauntroy approached her to say that King and the SCLC leadership wanted her to organize the national mobilization. She was to get as many people as possible, representing as many organizations as possible, to Montgomery, where they would welcome the Selma marchers on the final day and then march together with them to the capitol building. Fearing what might happen, King and the SCLC did not want people flocking down in private cars.

Organizers scrambled to assemble the necessities for a five-day march of 300 people. They needed generators for the campsites, ground tarps, air mattresses, blankets, food, and water. The Rev. Eugene Pickett put out the call for members of the United Liberal Congregation in Atlanta to go if they could, or to send blankets if they couldn’t. The church telephone tree sprung into action, and in a single Sunday church members supplied 250 blankets.

On Sunday afternoon, March 21, the march to Montgomery set out, led by Martin and Coretta King, Ralph and Juanita Abernathy, Ralph Bunche, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dick Gregory, and other notables. Behind them came 3,200 more. Overhead a single-engine Piper Cub dropped KKK leaflets.

The Rev. Richard Leonard volunteered to represent Unitarian Universalism among the 300. But the organizers responded that they already had a UU—James Bell, an African-American young adult who was a member of the Germantown Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. Still Leonard resolved to march. Steve Graves, a Meadville Lombard student, was no less determined. He steadily moved toward the front of the march where, to his surprise, he was “designated a ‘line marshal’ to help keep an orderly line of marchers.” Later, when he was replaced by an official marshal, Graves kept right on marching with the 300, as did Leonard. So it came to pass that the two UUs who marched the entire distance were uninvited guests.

In Birmingham the UU congregation prepared for a second onslaught, larger than the first. Coming to participate in the final day of the march were two buses from Rochester, New York, carrying 150, and a plane Dana Greeley had chartered from Boston carrying 75. An anonymous member of the UU church in Bloomington, Indiana, put up the money to charter a DC3. All needed to be fed, given home hospitality, and returned to the church by 5 a.m. to be put on five buses and driven a hundred miles to Montgomery.

On the final day, among the 30,000 who marched were about 500 UU lay people and about 250 UU ministers. The ministers who went to Selma represented a quarter to a third of all UU ministers in full fellowship. Add to that the dozens who spent time with the Mississippi Summer Project, the Delta Ministry Project, and other efforts in the South afterward; those who led their communities’ response; and the dozen ministers who participated in the UU presence in Selma through the summer of 1965. It isn’t a stretch to estimate that half of the 710 UU ministers in full fellowship were actively engaged in this struggle. For many, the experience changed their lives. And it brought to the UUA a sea change in attitudes.

The march to Montgomery was a milestone, but it was not an end to the work or the losses. Change was imminent, but it would be expensive—and the next payment came due that evening. Viola Liuzzo, a part-time student at Wayne State University and wife and mother of five, had driven from Detroit to join the march, coming alone and despite her family’s protest. On her arrival in Selma, she had been assigned to staff the welcoming table, greeting new arrivals. After the march, she ferried marchers back from Montgomery to Selma, along Route 80. Earlier that day she had a sense of foreboding, but had shrugged it off and gone about her business. She was heading back to Montgomery to do another shuttle run when a car pulled up beside hers and a gunman shot her in the head, killing her instantly.

ABC had interrupted the Sunday, March 7, 1965, broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg, a drama about the war-crime trials in Nazi Germany, to cut to footage of the vicious attack by Alabama state troopers and local vigilantes on 600 black citizens of Selma, Alabama. The connection couldn’t be missed. Ethel Gorman, the president of the Unitarian Church of Birmingham, wrote that on Tuesday night, “before we got down to business, we expressed our horror at the scenes in Selma which we had seen on TV. We felt shame for our state as well as pity for the victims; and fear because law enforcement officers acted like Nazi Storm Troopers.” In March 1965 the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War was at hand. The trauma of the war years, having touched nearly every adult, was easily evoked. Most remembered the sacrifices made, and many were aware of the consequences of inaction in the face of tyranny. Only in this context does what happened in Selma make sense.

The idealism of participants suggests a twentieth-century crusade: a collective struggle against injustice. Telling her husband why she had to go, Viola Liuzzo said, “It’s everybody’s fight. There are just too many people just standing around talking.” Reeb used similar words: “It’s the kind of fight I believe in. I want to be part of it.” Given the moral fury that fueled them, the metaphors of fighting and weapons came naturally. To borrow William James’s phrase, Selma was “the moral equivalent of war.” The fight in Selma built upon what James claimed is an innate human martial nature which cultivates the “surrender of private interest,” promotes “obedience to command,” and encourages “strenuous honor.” The civil rights movement relied on all of these. And, as UU theologian the Rev. Dr. William R. Jones pointed out, “The alleged rift among civil rights leaders is not a conflict over the desirability or necessity of force but a difference of opinion as regards what types of force are legitimate and effective expressions of non-violent coercion.” Activists took aggressive action, but with morality as a shield, sacrifice as a weapon, and camaraderie bolstering their morale. Selma was that generation’s war.

In and of themselves, noble aspirations and heroic deeds cannot undo systematically embedded patterns. After Selma, UUs preached more sermons about human rights, sang more freedom songs on Sunday mornings, and devoted more Sunday School classes to the situation of African Americans. But they sang the songs and preached the messages, by and large, in lily-white settings—in the suburbs. Without a doubt, UUs participated in more protest marches and community action. But how much attention would the cause receive in the years ahead when issues that affected Euro-American UUs directly—such as the war in Vietnam and Women’s Liberation—became urgent? For how long would the cause of African Americans—people who were not their peers nor part of their lives—remain paramount? What would summon UU attention when African-American songs and stories appeared in neither the 1964 hymnal nor Sunday school curricula and African Americans represented perhaps 1 percent of the UU population and had no voice on UU governing bodies? Unitarian Universalism in practice, structure, and complexion remained out of sync with its values.

Integration triumphed in Selma in a way that transcended the word’s customary—and spurious—meaning. Genuine integration happens when parts form a new whole; it is a melding rather than the subjugation of one by another. Some UUs achieved that melding during March 1965, when their values and practices meshed, when black and white stood together at the Selma Wall, sharing in struggle and song, discomfort and celebration—needing one another. For this group of UUs, Selma was memorable because there they experienced what it felt like to be whole, rather than experiencing the different aspects of the self as at odds with one another. The barriers of race and class, head and heart, were breached. Selma was about being in authentic relationship to one’s values, promises, and hopes, and honoring them by committing one’s life even unto death. In giving their selves over to that time and its demands, to their conscience and sense of honor, to their faith and what it stood for, to the future and what they all hoped for, they found redemption. Together, in Selma, they found that their lives had purpose. And many, perhaps for the first time, felt whole. This was the “Spirit of Selma”; in the midst of turmoil, their values and their lives became congruent.

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of UU World (pages 33-37). It is adapted with permission from The Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism (Skinner House Books, 2014).