Two UUs who showed up died: the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. A memorial to that moment greets every visitor who climbs the stairs to the second floor landing at our Boston headquarters. The movie Selma powerfully recalls the period. The UUA Board of Trustees will soon meet in Alabama, as will the board of the UU Service Committee. The legacy of Selma continues to shape us.
“You can’t pretend to show up.” I wonder where Dr. King might ask us to show up if he were alive today. So much has changed in the last fifty years. So much is still the same. The kind of overt, flagrant, confrontational racism of the Deep South in the 1960s is mostly gone. There has been dramatic progress. We have African American mayors, members of Congress and, of course, an African American president. We see black people in prominent positions in all areas of life.
Things today are also a mess. Today we don’t have lynchings, but we see black men killed with impunity by police. We witness cynical efforts (shamelessly supported by our Supreme Court) to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote. The level of incarceration of young African American men is a national scandal. Today racism persists, but it has evolved.
The racial and ethnic situation in America is also a lot more complicated today. African Americans are no longer the largest minority group. Latinos now outnumber blacks, and there has been a large increase in people of Asian descent. But that is only part of it. There has been so much intermarriage and so much interracial adoption that our old racial and ethnic categories are breaking down. We all know people who just don’t fit the old categories. Is a Peruvian immigrant of African descent a Hispanic or African American? What about the child whose parents are Korean and Mexican American? The combinations are endless.
These are not academic distinctions, for they shape our attitudes and our actions. For example, lumping many groups together as “people of color” highlights important commonalities in the experience of oppression. However, that same language obscures the fact that there are important differences. As the recent cases of the deaths of African American men at the hands of police demonstrate, blacks face levels of oppression that are worse than those faced by most Latinos, Asians, or LGBTQ people. Native Americans face their own unique challenges. Black men are far more at risk than black women. Being a fair-skinned, highly educated Latino is very different from being an uneducated Latino with dark skin who speaks no English.
Today, showing up means being ready not just for a big demonstration in Selma, Washington, Phoenix, or New York. It also means bearing witness to injustice in our home communities, whether that be Boston, Boise, Bismarck, or Baton Rouge. It means showing up at city hall, at school, and at work. It means linking up with others to multiply our power.
I am glad we are commemorating Selma. It is important to remember and to see our present circumstances in context.
I am proud of the way Unitarian Universalists showed up in Selma fifty years ago. Today Selma is everywhere. We all live in Selma. We need to show up there.
This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of UU World (page 5).