From Selma to the ‘fierce urgency of now’

Reverend Dr. Barbara Holmes, now president of United Theological Seminary in Minnesota

Reverend Dr. Barbara Holmes, now president of United Theological Seminary in Minnesota

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends inexorably toward justice.” So preached Martin Luther King, Jr. and abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker before him. The Selma anniversary celebrations this weekend showed both the importance of activism in moving the arc over the past 50 years and of the urgency of continuing protest and pressure. Diane Nash’s protest was inspiring,President Obama’s speech was eloquent, and Rev. Barbara Holmes brought home her personal story and continuing witness. 

At the bridge in Selma, President Obama began by reminding us that, “there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided,” and that Selma was one such place, as important as Concord and Lexington or Gettysburg. His tremendously eloquent speech went on and on, not only evoking the courage and sacrifice and triumph of those who have gone before but also challenging us to continue the struggle:

“What they did here will reverberate through the ages.  Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate. … [W]hat could be more American than what happened in this place? …

“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals? “

The president said the brave Selma marchers of 50 years ago shared “the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo.” His words sound better than his policies, which continue to punish the immigrants who cross the Rio Grande seeking sanctuary from violence. But that’s our struggle, to hold politicians — including the Politician-in-Chief — accountable to their high ideals and push them to action.

Diane Nash, one of the founders of SNCC, an original Selma marcher, refused to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the president and the coterie of dignitaries present on Saturday. She refused because former president George W. Bush was among those dignitaries and she would not walk with him. Democracy Now shared her statement that:

“The Selma movement stands for nonviolence and peace and democracy and fairness and voting rights. And George Bush stands for just the opposite. He stands for violence and war and stolen elections, and, for goodness sake, his administration had people tortured.”

But the part of her message that should resonate with all of us, and especially with the Politician-in-Chief, is that we cannot leave the future of the country to politicians, but must take action: “Suppose we had waited for elected officials to desegregate lunch counters, buses, and to get the right to vote. I think 50 years later we would still be waiting.”

Her witness stands out from the celebration, a stalwart reminder to speak truth to power, to celebrate the successes of the civil rights movement but never to forget the distance we still have to go.

That’s a distance marked by Ferguson and the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, which was released last week. (More on that in a later blog post.) Michael Brown’s mother was at the Selma march this weekend, as another family mourned another young black man in Madison, Wisconsin, shot to death by a police officer in his home.

At St. Paul’s commemoration of Selma, with a thousand other people, I listened to Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes recall her Selma march as a teenager. Selma, she told us, is more than a city in Alabama. It is “a place where nonviolence triumphed.” She recalled going from Connecticut to Alabama with her father, a disabled World War II veteran, because, “We wanted to be part of what was playing out before our eyes on the evening news.”

Back the, Holmes huddled with children on the floor of a church basement during the night before the march, while the Ku Klux Klan drove back and forth through the parking lot, honking and threatening. Her father and the other black men sat outside the church in folding chairs, in their undershirts, through the night, backed by a “wall of black mothers holding huge potato salad spoons in their hands.” After the march, they came home, “shaken, inspired and forever changed.”

World-changing, Rev. Holmes said, is a generational task, and it is time to pass the torch to the next generation. The older generation remains in the struggle, “as mentors, when asked,” and as witnesses. As witnesses, we can testify not only to the continuing urgency of the struggle for justice, but also to the distance we have come in the past half-century. President Obama spoke of those successes:

“We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.  If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s.  Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed.  Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago.  To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

Every person in the United States today, Obama said, needs “to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children.  And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.”

In the words of more than one of the speakers I heard this weekend, we need to feel, as the original Selma marchers did, the “fierce urgency of now,” and move forward to challenge and push and force our leaders to bend the arc of history a little more, a little faster toward justice.

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