Unless you’re fairly young, haven’t studied much history at all, or haven’t cared enough about it to remember when you did hear the stories, you’ve heard of Selma, Alabama. Sadly, it is not famous so much as infamous, like Salem, Massachusetts – its anagram.
The common denominator between the two is fierce bravery met with ignorant cruelty.
Selma is where Bloody Sunday happened on March 7, 1965, and last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending Brown’s Chapel AME Church, where it all started. AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal. African because it was started by freed slaves, Methodist for style of worship, and Episcopal for doctrine.
Before I visited the church, I contacted the pastor, Rev. Leodis Strong. I told him that I would be visiting, that I would be a sole white guy on a motorcycle, and that I wanted to join them in worship as opposed to being a threat or even merely a spectator. He welcomed me to come and then the church welcomed me to stay and visit again. They were wonderful people as far as I could tell, and he delivered a great sermon. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before I showed up at the church, I rode to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and marinated in the history for a bit.
Only last winter, I visited the Old North Church in Boston. (City of Patriots) Old North, which just happened to be episcopal, like Brown’s Chapel, was a starting place in the fight of our founding fathers against a government ruling over them despite them having no voice in it. In Selma, a group of black citizens were protesting the fact that they were being kept from having a voice in the government which ruled over them. They were being kept from voting by state required literacy tests for some people but not others (equal protection clause issue – who even wrote that law?) There is an undeniable common denominator here. Further, the Alabama government, with George Wallace as Governor, was acting similarly to the British Government under King George III. Getting a little weird isn’t it?
Neither effort at human rights were met with open arms or open palms. The efforts were met with closed fists. Another common denominator is that just like many modern British do not consider our revolutionary fathers to be heroes, as U.S. citizens do, many American caucasians do not consider the heroes of the black voting rights movement to be patriots. I dare say most have never thought about the common denominators, and most (including me) could not name the fathers of the movement. But the people of Brown’s Chapel AME can. And that’s why I visited the historic church last Sunday.
I had good conversations with two of the people I met at Brown’s Chapel: Pastor Strong and Ms. Joyce O’Neal. Both were interesting and inspiring. But the communication really started with Pastor Strong’s sermon:
a. Jesus needed the love and companionship of friends. He made that clear at Gethsemane as He asked His disciples to stay up with Him and pray. He didn’t need their prayer – He wanted their companionship. This is consistent with God the Father – 43 times in the Bible He expressed how “I will be their God and they will be my people.” He wants our companionship even now, but it is the last thing we usually want to give. We will give work, money, study, but to sit and just BE with him … not so much.
b. Another point of the sermon was that Peter, who couldn’t stay awake to pray, was fully awake for a physical fight. “Put your sword back into its place, Peter.” Matthew 26:52 Pastor Strong pointed out that too often then and now, Christians are waving around weapons and their rights to them (valid rights) but when it is time fight the real battles that matter, in prayer, we fall asleep. How very true. Peter mistook a spiritual war for a physical one, but at least he listened to the Master when He corrected him.
c. Prayer was the centerpiece, not the showpiece, of Jesus’ life. Let that soak in.
After the sermon, I had a good interview with Mrs. O’Neal. She was 16 when the marchers of Selma were attacked that Sunday, so although she had been attending student marches for voting rights, she was at the church when her parents and other adult friends marched to the bridge.
Imagine the terror of a 16 year old girl, when the adults come running back to the church only about 30 minutes after leaving, with gashed faces, black eyes, bloody backs, and bleeding heads. Try to grasp the trauma when white men on horseback, representing the white government of your own nation, ride right up the steps of your church, beating and teargassing your loved ones as they try to retreat into the church. Comprehend the distrust of the white government that that 16 year old might then harbor, and how she might even teach it to her children, for their own safety. Hers was a compelling story, but the thing is, the common denominator looms visible.
Every class of voter in this nation has a history of being denied the vote at some point. The original British subjects staged a revolution over it. The freed slaves staged marches over it. People without photo id’s still struggle with it. We who can easily speak in our governments take it for granted now, to the point of apathy.
And sadly, apathy is now a problem in the very community that surrounds Brown’s Chapel AME. This is the headquarters of the voting rights for african americans movement in the U.S. but people that live in the federal housing around it hardly vote.
So, Houston, we have a problem. We fight for rights and then we cherish them for an hour before we toss them aside. We enjoy the fight more than the right, as long as we are winning. We divide ourselves just to have fights, and then fight about who got to be on the side that won. Racism is just one of the fictitious divisions. The Christian Right, like Peter, still sees weaponry as the answer to problems whose roots are spiritual.
I talked all this over with Reverend Strong, over some of Ms. Pat’s baked chicken and black-eyed peas, and then geared up and rode into the southern heat again. I didn’t solve any problems but I gained a better understanding of them.
I asked Ms. Joyce what one man or woman could do to solve these problems:
“Speak your truth..”