The Challenge of Selma


The American Civil War lasted almost exactly four years, from April 12, 1861 to April 9, 1865. It was just a month before the 100th anniversary of the end of that war that a march occurred, the march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The fight for civil rights was a long fight, one which continues even today. The success of that march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965 needs to be placed in a historical context, I think, in order for us to realize its meaning.

The book Voices of Freedom, an oral history of the civil rights movement, is a good source of information. In it, you learn that “for almost seventy years, the U.S. Supreme Court had supported southern insistence on second-class citizenship for blacks. With the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the Court signaled it was changing its position regarding the legality of segregating black and white schoolchildren.”

What followed was predictable: increased activity by the Ku Klux Klan; “White Citizens’ Councils were formed to exert political and economic pressure on black activists and their white sympathizers”; Mississippi’s US senators, James Eastland and John Stennis, “worked to further consolidate the white monopoly of political power”; and “Mississippi Governor J.P. Coleman stated flatly that Negroes weren’t fit to vote.” (VoF, p. 2).

Probably most of you are familiar with the name “Emmett Till.” Here is how his cousin, Curtis Jones, tells the story:

We was going to Money, Mississippi, to have a good time. I’d never picked cotton before and I was looking forward to that. I had told my mother that I could pick two hundred pounds, and she told me I couldn’t. Emmett Till was fourteen years old, had just graduated out of grammar school.

My grandfather in Mississippi was a preacher. He had a church and he had a little raggedy ‘41 Ford, if I’m not mistaken. And he took all of us to church that day, including my grandmother, my three uncles, myself, my cousin Emmett, and my cousin Willa Parker. While he was in the pulpit preaching, we get the car and drive to Money.

Anyway, we went into this store to buy some candy. Before Emmett went in, he had shown the boys round his age some picture of some white kids that he had graduated from school with, female and male. He told the boys who had gathered round this store– there must have been maybe ten to twelve youngsters there– that one of the girls was his girlfriend.

So one of the local boys said, “Hey, there’s a white girl in that store there. I bet you won’t go in there and talk to her.”

So Emmett went in there. When he was leaving out the store, after buying some candy, he told her, “Bye, baby.”

I was sitting out there playing checkers with this older man. Next thing I know, one of the boys came up to me and said, “Say, man, you got a crazy cousin. He just went in there and said ‘Bye, baby’ to that white woman.”

This man I was playing checkers with jumped straight up and said, “Boy, you better get out of here. That lady will come out of that store and blow your brains off.”

It was kind of funny to us. We hopped in the car and drove back to the church. My grandfather was just about completing his sermon.

That was on a Sunday. Two days later, Emmett Till was kidnapped. “That Wednesday, Emmet Till’s body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River. A cotton gin fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire.” He was 14 years old. 1955.

“By 1955, segregation on Montgomery’s bus lines was an entrenched and complicated arrangement. Black passengers paid their fares at the front, then left the bus to board at the rear. Blacks sat at the rear, whites in the front. And by practice, if not by law, an entire row of blacks would be asked to give up their seats if one white person was standing” (p. 18).

Rosa Parks was 43. She was the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP as well as the NAACP Youth Council adviser. She was taking the bus home from work. One white man was standing; the four black passengers in the row were asked to stand and give up their seats. Three did. Rosa Parks refused to move. The bus driver asked her to stand a second time, then he left the bus and called the police. Rosa Parks was arrested.

The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed within days. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. was new to the community, having moved there just a year before, he agreed when asked to be the new organization’s spokesperson. His keynote speech to a mass meeting at the Holt Street Baptist Church incited a movement which he insisted would be nonviolent and based on Christian love.

It was the signal event that led to a boycott of the Montgomery public buses that lasted 13 months. When the boycott ended, blacks could sit anywhere they wanted in the buses. This victory fueled a feeling of excitement and accomplishment and provided a sense of self-respect to the Black community. 1956.

The Freedom Rides occurred in 1961. James Meredith entered Ole Miss in 1962. On January 14, 1963, in his inauguration address, Governor George Wallace of Alabama made his famous statement “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny… and I say segregation now… segregation tomorrow… segregation forever.” Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.

On August 27,1963, hundreds of thousands of persons made their way to a march on Washington, the “March for Jobs and Freedom.” On August 28, Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, addressed an audience of an estimated 250,000 people in what has become known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Burke Marshall, the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice at the time, says “The politicians in Washington… I’m speaking of Congress– were scared to death of the march, just totally irrational… I guess they thought that people were going to march down Constitution Avenue throwing stones at them or something like that. There were Congressmen who would call up the White House and say ‘We’d better have troops all over the place.’ No troops, we said.”

It’s hard, looking back from this vantage point to get a sense of just how uncertain and frightening this time was. The March on Washington was a life-affirming, freedom-affirming event that left many of those who participated in a state of euphoria.

Just eighteen days later, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was firebombed. Fifteen sticks of explosives were set off in a building occupied by Sunday morning churchgoers. Four little girls who had just finished their Sunday school lessons and were changing into their choir robes were killed; one was eleven years old; the others were fourteen. Twenty other people were injured.

The next summer, the summer of 1964, is known as “Mississippi Freedom Summer.” Four major civil rights organizations, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, and the Southern Christian Leadership Council joined together to try to register as many black voters as possible. Fannie Lou Hamer became nationally known. That’s a short sketch of some of the events that preceded the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery and which paved the way for such a march to be possible.

The title of today’s sermon is “The Challenge of Selma.” It’s a title that can mean a number of things. For those who marched, it can refer to the challenge of standing up to the violence and brutality of established institutions. For our society in general, it can stand for an accomplishment that, though it occurred fifty years ago, still challenges our assumptions about equality and fairness. And for Unitarian Universalists, it holds a special meaning, both in recalling our response as a denomination and our shortcomings then and now.

Most of the rest of today’s talk will be reflections upon this book, The Selma Awakening, written by Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed, who is now an affiliated faculty member at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. The subtitle of the book is “How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism.”

Rev. Morrison-Reed makes a number of points in his book, among them

  • that the words of Unitarian Universalists did not match their actions in the decades that led up to the march to Selma and during the era of the struggle for equal rights for African Americans, in general;

  • that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to clergy of all denominations to join the march changed all that;

  • that UU laypersons and ministers acted courageously in this chapter of the struggle for equal rights; and

  • that the struggle for equal rights for black Americans helped pave the way for successful struggles to achieve improved status of women in the United States.

It’s a book that’s both informative and challenging; I hope to share a little of both aspects with you today.

Rev. Morrison-Reed starts out with this question, “Did freedom merely mean freedom of belief and conscience? Or did it also include the civic, political, and economic freedoms that the educated, middle-class, liberal constituency (of the UUA) took for granted?” And the further, deeper question, “Was this not a struggle for a nation’s soul?”

In order to understand the internal challenges that Unitarian Universalism faced in the mid-sixties, we need to talk a little bit about the history and development of the two traditions. The religious traditions of both Unitarianism and Universalism, as many of you know, grew out of the Christian congregational churches of New England. (When we say that a church is “congregational,” we mean that the congregation, itself, not a governing body of bishops or presbyters, is responsible for making its decisions in terms of organization and polity.)

Through the 18th century, the Enlightenment ideas of “the power of reason and free will became widespread among Congregational ministers,” which, of course, created tension with the more traditional, Calvinist churches. (Wikipedia: Unitarianism). In 1805, a Unitarian minister, Henry Ware, was elected as President of Harvard Divinity School. This brought more liberal ideas to the most influential school of divinity in the country.

There was a class aspect to this, too, of course, as these well-educated men– and they were all men– were of the upper classes. This fact influenced and helped to shape the culture of the denomination. Unitarianism, since its founding, has been a liberal religious tradition, but its culture and the class standing of its leaders, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, strongly influenced its relation to the society at large and its interactions within it.

Not surprisingly, the denomination’s worldview was exclusively Euro-American because the composition of its membership came from (and largely still comes from) that cultural heritage. That means that whatever its impulses towards racial inclusiveness might be, it has been hampered by its own sense of self-definition as something other than and different from the African American experience.

Our religious tradition has been shaped as much by the culture of a democratic society that nonetheless retains a class structure in practice if not in policy as it has by its theology. This is one of the central points of this book called The Selma Awakening. And Mark Morrison-Reed is not pleased with this culture; much of the book is devoted to taking the denomination to task for the disparity between its stated beliefs and its actions.

As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, ourselves, it behooves us to examine this truth, to take responsibility for it, to understand how it has influenced our development, and to decide for ourselves what the proper response may be as we move forward. Was this the result of ignorance, of acculturation, of prejudice or a combination of all of these things and others besides?

There is no question that Unitarians and Universalists had good intentions. In 1889, the Universalists “ordained Joseph Jordan, the first African-American ever welcomed into its ministry.” The Universalist missionary Quillen Shinn supported Jordan in bringing Universalism to the black community of Norfolk, Virginia. “No man can be a Universalist whose love does not take in all races and colors of men,” he said.

“Yet in 1897 William H. McGlauflin, while serving as Universalism’s southern missionary, advised the annual meeting that no effort be undertaken to admit African Americans to local Sunday schools or Young People’s Christian Unions. This recommendation was based on his belief that for whites such an effort would be the same as ‘a lighted match [in] a powder magazine.’” (p. 2).

“Twenty years later, in 1917, the Universalist General Convention published its ‘Declaration of Social Principles,’ the official statement of its values. While it heralds ‘man’s universal brotherhood,’ it does not mention race.” The document was recast in 1943 and was more explicit, “We must recognize that today Americans of Negro, Indian, and Oriental descent… are suffering from unjust forms of discrimination.”

Fourteen years later, the Convention went further, affirming the worth of each person “regardless of race, creed, or standing.” That was in 1957. There was, in fact, a determination to be fair and to seek justice; at the same time, social realities and the prejudices even of some in leadership positions, worked against effectively implementing these lofty sentiments.

Rev. Morrison-Reed points out a number of areas where Unitarians could have done better in terms of being racially inclusive:

  • Hymnals were devoid of worship materials that reflected the African American experience.
  • Black life and culture were rarely depicted in the religious education curricula, and African-American achievements were not acknowledged.
  • Congregations were routinely located at a distance from black population centers and were averse to calling African-American ministers.
  • Fellowships tended to be anti-clerical, vehemently humanist, intellectual cliques located in suburbia, and thus did not align well with the sensibilities of African Americas seeking a liberal religious community.
  • African Americans rarely served on denominational governing bodies.

Rev. Morrison Reed makes several judgments based on these observations: one is that “Delving into the contrasts between the actions and attitudes of the Universalists and the Unitarians and the principles they proclaimed lays bare the deep-seated, pervasive, and unconscious culture of racism within both individuals and institutions during the decades preceding Selma.”

Another is that “Unitarians and Universalists celebrated an exclusively Euro-American worldview that was implicitly racist, while convinced that their congregations were open and accepting. Unable to imagine anything else, they championed assimilation while calling it integration. Morrison-Reed concedes that “they were good people with noble intentions,” but insists that “their behavior was conventional, blinkered, aloof, and, beneath its cosmopolitan veneer, apprehensive.”

These are hard things to hear, and we need to carefully consider them. There is much truth in them, I think, but I would like to lift up one aspect that I don’t think should be merged with all the others and that’s the theology (or philosophy, if you prefer) of humanism that began to permeate the denomination from at least 1933 and the issuance of the Humanist Manifesto.

Religious traditions evolve. They are shaped by cultural influences and intellectual trends just as other aspects of the culture are. The denomination has always had an intellectual bent, and the appeal of Enlightenment thinking in the 18th century has continued to be an influence, so much so that we cannot be surprised that humanism has emerged as such a dominant strain in our theological outlook. There is nothing to apologize for in that, but it is something to be aware of.

Elsewhere in the book, Morrison-Reed criticizes the denomination for not being more welcoming to African Americans because of the informality of our dress at worship. He reminds us that African Americans often have jobs as laborers or in menial professions, that they wear work clothes or a uniform all week and on Sundays want to dress up for the Sunday service. When such persons enter a UU church, they feel awkward and out of place because of their dress and are unlikely to return.

It is important to recognize our shortcomings, but it’s also important to recognize that we can’t be all things to all people. Our culture has evolved in a particular way. We can do our best to be welcoming, but we need to recognize that cultural and theological differences do have an impact. Folks will seek places of worship that seem most congruent with their own experience and there is nothing wrong with that.

There is, though, something wrong with remaining in ignorance about the needs of others in our community, the differences that are made by cultural upbringing, the injustice caused by poverty and prejudice.

Unitarian Universalists went to Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965 in great numbers in response to a call, a call from Martin Luther King, Jr. in a telegram sent on March 8. Here is what it said:

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all of America. No American is without responsibility. All are involved in the sorrow that rises in Selma to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all America help to bear the burden I call therefore, on clergy of all faiths representative of every part of the country, to join me for a ministers’ march to Montgomery on Tuesday morning, March 9th. In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.

The phone calls from the UUA office were rapid, and the response was quick. Ministers had to make up their minds quickly and they did, some with a passionate commitment, others somewhat reluctantly; some were talked into action by their colleagues. Some had commitments that were pressing and they stayed at home.

What happened to make UUs move from ideals to action? Morrison-Reed cites at least three major changes in the society. “The executive branch of the federal government exerted pressure when it ordered the end of discrimination in all federal services in 1948. The Supreme Court increased that pressure in 1954 when it ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. Congress increased it further still in 1958 and 1964, when it passed civil rights bills.”

Many of the UUs who went to Selma were young, in their 20s and 30s; “they stood,” Morrison-Reed says,” as a model and a challenge, to their elders.”

There was a cost to UU participation in the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. UU minister James Reeb, age 38, was attacked and killed by white thugs when on the way back to his hotel from his dinner; his companions, other UU ministers, were beaten up and injured.

His medical treatment was delayed because when the ambulance brought them to a black infirmary, it was not equipped to treat such serious injury. The ambulance had to drive to Birmingham, but could not go until the ministers could secure a check for $150 deposit; the hospital would not admit Rev. Reeb otherwise. The ambulance got a flat tire. The radio didn’t work. They had to turn back, in fear of the cars of white passengers who were driving by. The Dallas County sheriff’s deputies stopped the ambulance, shone flashlights in the faces of the occupants and questioned them. They refused to provide an escort to the hospital. It was a complicated mess that led to the death of James Reeb.

A UU laywoman was killed, as well. Viola Liuzzo was “a part-time student at Wayne State University and wife and mother of five.” She had driven from Detroit to join the march, after which, “she ferried marchers back from Montgomery to Selma… She was heading back to Montgomery to do another shuttle run when a car pulled up beside hers and a gunman shot her in the head, killing her instantly.” It was a violent time.

The march from Selma to Montgomery was 54 miles long. It took five days to complete. Blacks and whites walked together and slept wherever they could, sustained by the solidarity they felt in their commitment to see justice done. People were clubbed, beaten, shot at, brutalized. If you saw the recent movie, “Selma,” you got a taste of what those days were like.

It changed everyone who participated and it changed the face of Unitarian Universalism. This religion that values intellectual stimulation on a Sunday morning found a deeper meaning in the actions of marching in an integrated body with persons of other religious traditions. And in deferring to the leadership of those of another race, a usually subject race.

Morrison-Reed says, “This emphasis on the intellect safeguards religious liberals from feelings, from vulnerability, from the unexpected, from loss of control, and from any power beyond their control.” Our “faith tradition was intellectually alive but emotionally impoverished. Selma’s emotional intensity ‘broke through a great barrier to the reality in life,’ as Leon Hopper described it. This is why many UUs see their experience there as the high point in their lives. Their emotions were so intense, their feelings so powerful, that rationality had little to do with the experience came to mean to them: rebirth and rededication, solidarity with the oppressed, camaraderie with colleagues, awareness of what was right, and of what they had been willing to lay down their lives for…

“Being in Selma taught (UUs) to step out of individualism and think about community first, to confront authority and yet, within the movement, to obey it. They participated in a black religious tradition which asserts that salvation, in essence, is collective. Its leaders did not denigrate the intellect, but neither did they make an icon of it. They wielded it in the service of justice.” (p. 213-14) “For a little while they became one with the oppressed and disinherited.” (p. 215)


  • The Selma Awakening by Mark D. Morrison-Reed. Skinner House Books. Boston. 2014.
  • Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer. Bantam Books. NY, NY. 1990.
  • Wikipedia: Harvard Divinity School. Jimmie Lee Jackson. Selma to Montgomery Marches. Freedom Summer.

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