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From Selma to Montgomery

From Selma to Montgomery

Monday June 15 2015

The Rev Dr Iain Whyte walks again in the footsteps of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.


‘Ah, here is the Bishop from Scotland.’

I was standing in the gathering crowd who were about to start the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on the first Monday of March. The speaker was Ralph Worrell, one of the organisers of the march and leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by his friend and colleague, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

I had spoken to Mr Worrell on the phone from home, registering as the only prospective marcher from Scotland or indeed the British Isles, but his assumption of my ecclesiastical status had to be corrected – with laughter. He was one of the many ‘veterans’ of that march fifty years ago, shown again to the world in the film Selma, who had braved with non-violent resistance the clubs, whips and police horses of Sheriff Jim Clark’s police that day in 1965. Some of them were retracing the fifty-odd miles on this Jubilee year, a journey that had cost the lives of three peaceful activists.

During the previous two days Selma had known unprecedented crowds, as President Obama, accompanied by one hundred members of Congress, made a speech on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that spanned the Alabama river.

We attended Cornerstone Presbyterian Church on Sunday morning and were moved by the wonderful rendering by Marcia Edwards of Swing Low Sweet Chariot and When the Saints Go Marching In.

Afterwards we talked to Marcia and heard how she had been a girl of 11 on the Bridge in 1965, seeing her friend bleeding from police assault and not far from the felling of John Lewis. It was the first of many inspirational encounters with those whose faith and generosity of spirit had risen above the mental and physical scarring of that brutal experience.

After the group of around 70 of us crossed the river and left the outskirts of Selma we began to share stories and discover each other.

One of the most poignant moments was our pause at the gravestone of Viola Liuzzo, a white teacher from Detroit whose car was run off the road by the Ku Klux Klan as she was transporting marchers back to Selma at the end of the 1965 march. She was then shot at point blank range. A young white local Unitarian minister (Viola was Unitarian) offered a prayer and could hardly check her emotion, and various marchers read part of the story. There was silence when we started again, all aware of this sacrifice for justice of a brave woman. In fact the Communion of Saints was powerfully present as we also remembered Jimmie Lee Jackson and the Rev James Reeb who had laid down their lives at that time.

‘There were many placards carried to express urgent concern for the Civil Rights yet to be won. ‘Black Lives Matter’ referred to the shootings of young African Americans in various cities, ‘Support Black Farmers’ witnessed to the widening income gap between black and white Americans, and ‘Restore Voting Rights’ reflected the weakened legislation that has replaced the Voting Rights Act that was so hard won in 1965.

This was as much a pilgrimage as a demonstration, a spiritual experience as much as a walk in good company, though it was all of these things. A sad note was struck by those who proclaimed that they were ready to forgive if only more of the perpetrators would come out to apologise. The late Governor George Wallace’s daughter that weekend gave a moving apology for her father, although he had also done so before he died. Not so Sheriff Clark, who remained defiant to the end. But that bleak note was swallowed up by the commitment to the ever present struggle for justice and freedom from young and old.

This is an abridged version of an article in June's Life and Work. Subscribe here.

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