By Annette Marquis
Unitarian Universalist (UU) Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage
In the course of our journey, we visited two Unitarian Universalist
congregations, the UU Church in Birmingham (UUCB) and the
UU Fellowship of Montgomery (UUFM). Both congregations
greeted us as family who had come home for a visit after too long an absence.
They showered us with true Southern hospitality, fed us home-cooked meals, and
did everything they could do to make us comfortable. But most importantly, they
shared the richness of their histories, their involvement in the Movement, and
their courageous people. In both cases, I was struck with how vibrant the
congregations are today and how poised they still are to represent UU values in
In Montgomery, we actually
saw UUFM in action as we attended a rally on the steps of the
Alabama State Capitol to support the inclusion of sexual orientation in the
state’s hate crime statute. Rev. Paul Britner, minister of UUFM, helped
organize and emcee the event and the UUFM choir led the protestors in singing,
“Love Will Guide Us.” It is clear that the fight for civil rights is not over
and that, wherever we are, UUs are called to lead in these efforts.
I was proud
to be a UU that day. I was proud to be standing on the same steps where (Alabama Governor) George
Wallace refused to allow Martin Luther King, Jr. to stand at the conclusion of the
Selma to Montgomery march because he didn’t want King
speaking from the spot where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office as
president of the Confederate States. I was proud to share the day with
Montgomery UUs who were proving that our civil rights legacy is still living and
breathing in the hearts and minds of today’s UUs.
Of all the questions that this pilgrimage generated in me, I continue to
be most challenged by what it meant to organize an entire social change movement
based on non-violence resistance. I began to wonder if I could have done
what the people in the civil rights movement did.
Imagine that you are in
a training session designed to prepare you to participate in a protest march.
You spend an entire weekend learning about non-violence and non-violent
resistance techniques. Throughout much of the weekend you are being badgered, yelled at, called names, pushed, and even hit,
and your job is to not react—to let yourself be verbally and even physically
abused and just take it, to not defend yourself, to not run away.
By the end of the training, it’s decided whether you have what it takes to
be in the march. For, you see, being a marcher in the Movement is a high honor.
If it becomes clear that you can’t respond non-violently, you are placed in a support role and are not given the honor of marching.
As I heard the stories of those who marched, I again asked myself, "Could I do it? Could I place myself in that level
of danger? Could I risk my life for something, even if it was something I
believed in as strongly as I believe in civil rights?"
On March 7, 1965, 600 of
these trained marchers left Brown Chapel in Selma, AL, walked
through town, and began to cross the Edmund Pettus
Bridge on their way to the state
capital in Montgomery. When they reached the crest of the
bridge, they reported that
all they saw was a sea of blue. Police had formed a solid line almost a block
away from the end of the bridge. The marchers kept moving forward, down the
other side of the bridge. When they got
within hearing distance, they were told by the police to turn back. Before they even
had a chance to respond, the police, some on horseback, viciously attacked them. The
marchers were beaten back with billy clubs, tear gas, and bull whips. This
event, referred to as Bloody Sunday, horrified the nation as photographs and
video were shown on the Sunday evening news.
Two days later, Martin
Luther King, Jr. led a second march across that same bridge. Again, the marchers were told to
turn back. Rev. King asked if they could pray first. The marchers got
down on their knees in the middle of the street and prayed. Then King
stood up, turned the march around, and went back to Brown Chapel. Think about
that for a moment. Only two days before, hundreds of people, neighbors, friends,
and family members, were beaten, many seriously injured, at this same spot,
doing this same thing, by these same police officers. What kind of courage did
it take for the second group of marchers to get down on their knees and pray?
Could I do that?
I like to think
that I would have gone to Selma after Dr. King called Rev. Dana Greeley, the
president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and asked for our help. I like to think I would have
gone. But how do I put myself out there today? What risks do I take, today, to
further the cause of civil and human rights? The struggle is not over. Do I have
what it takes?
We UUs have an
incredible legacy of courage, strength, fortitude, and commitment in the
struggle for human rights. We have every right to be proud of this legacy. But
we cannot rest there. We cannot live on our legacy. We have to find ways to keep
our legacy alive by living lives today that honor these heroes of our faith.
Somewhere we have to find the courage to step out of our comfortable lives, out
of our safe congregations, and take the risks we need to take to move us closer
to the world we want to create. It will not happen if we sit idly by.
people of the Civil Rights Movement knew that. They put their lives on the line to make their dreams of a
brighter future see the light of day. I pray today that I will
be ready when I am called. And I’m going to need you there with me. Will you be
Annette Marquis is District Executive for the UUA Thomas Jefferson District,
and one of the leaders of the UU Living Legacy Civil Rights Pilgrimage.
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Thursday, August 23, 2012.
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Annette Marquis co-led the UU Civil Rights Living Legacy Pilgrimage.
The statue of Jefferson Davis stands at the Alabama State Capitol.
Rev. Paul Brittner, minister of the UU Fellowship of Montgomery, AL, on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.
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