How the Black Lives Matter movement challenges Unitarian Universalists.
The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, puts his hands up as 130 members of the church march in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade in Tulsa wearing hoodies with the slogans “Got Soul” on the front and “Don’t Shoot / Seek the Truth in Love” on the back. (© Matthew Edwards)
Nervous energy permeated the popular Denver grocery store. It was rush hour, true, but clearly even those not in on the impending action were aware that something was different. A tall woman glanced around the produce section. Aren’t there a lot of people here not really buying anything?
Anxious hands shook. Would we be loud enough? Strong enough?
The plan was simple: arrive at the King Soopers store, spread out, then sing the first verse of “Amazing Grace” eleven times—for the eleven times Eric Garner uttered “I can’t breathe” as a police officer ended his life in Staten Island, New York, on July 17, 2014.
Over sixty people showed up. Some shopped, a form of multitasking protest. I had volunteered to start the singing because I thought a young black person should start things off. Jitters threatened to overwhelm me before I reminded myself to look around. Over a dozen of my fellow Unitarian Universalists made the time to show up. My faith community was with me.
I breathed in, aware I could do what Eric Garner had cried out he could not, and began to sing.
When I was a child in Texas, my friends read comics; I read little history books. Children’s stories about civil rights leaders, about women like Ida B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony, littered my room. Thoughts of the people in those stories kept me up at night. How did Harriet Tubman not lose hope? How did Rosa Parks find her courage?
I am a proud, lifelong Unitarian Universalist and a proud black American. With the release of the film Selma and the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson and UUs Viola Liuzzo and the Rev. James Reeb, I have found myself lately, like many UUs, dreaming of heroes.
In this time of remembrance and of celebration, we may lose sight of how hard courage can be. Everyone may love Dr. King now—or, at least, love to quote him selectively—but in life, many reviled him. People who stand up for the oppressed are not celebrated. They are ignored, and when they refuse to be silent, they are despised at least as often as they are admired. Sometimes they are killed.
But they are my heroes.
Heroes say the hard thing. They do the hard thing—sometimes the hardest thing—by showing up. Viola Liuzzo was a UU hero, because she showed up. James Reeb was a UU hero, because he showed up. But they were not alone. They, and hundreds of other allies, showed up to encourage and support people whose heroism is hard to overstate.
The heroes I admire didn’t show up in order to stand in the spotlight. They didn’t ask to be the stars. Their heroism was their courage to stand with the oppressed.
Today, the Black Lives Matter movement is confronting violence against people of color all over the country. It is calling attention to police killings, which are almost never prosecuted. It is calling attention to vigilante killings, like George Zimmerman’s killing of teenager Trayvon Martin. And it is calling attention to the laws and policies that allow these deaths to continue almost without consequence to the perpetrators.
The movement for voting rights in Selma had a clear leader, and that leader—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—put out a call for justice—seeking people to come to Selma. Dr. King put out a call for heroes. The Black Lives Matter movement has no Dr. King, nor does it want one, but it too has put out a call. The call has not come in the form of a telegram but in tweets, in Facebook statuses, in public witness, in protests: Join us. Join us wherever you are, however you can. We need you to show up.
Increasingly, Unitarian Universalists are answering these calls—but slowly, and with caution. “Why not ‘All Lives Matter’?” some ask. Others hesitate because some of the black people killed had criminal records, or were suspected of committing nonviolent crimes. (Eric Garner was suspected of selling loose cigarettes.) Those of us in the movement respond by saying that such crimes ought not be punishable by death.
I grew up thinking of Unitarian Universalists as heroes—as people who show up for justice, for those who have been forgotten. Mary White Ovington, raised Unitarian, dreamed that white people such as herself would join the struggle for racial equality and helped found the NAACP. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a black woman and member of the Unitarian church in Philadelphia, worked tirelessly for abolition and, later, for women’s suffrage.
But the Black Lives Matter movement challenges us. We UUs are not its leaders, and because most of us are white, it decenters us. Although its slogan may challenge us, and its structure and leaders may be unfamiliar, the movement’s stated aims—I daresay, its theology—align with ours.
Here in Colorado, the Denver Freedom Riders’ mission statement begins: “We believe in the inherent dignity of human life. We believe no one is more aware of that inherent worth than those that society has attempted to dehumanize, marginalize, and oppress.” That sounds like Unitarian Universalism.
As we honor our past heroes, I hope we answer the call today. Our presence is a statement. Our witness is an action. The next racial justice movement has arrived. The next Selma is here. The next call for us to show up—in New York, in Ferguson, across America—has arrived. Will we answer?
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Kenny Wiley was a UU World senior editor from 2015 to 2018. His writing has also appeared in the Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, and Skyd Magazine.
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