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Selma Sunday

By Melissa Carvill-Ziemer

Selma is now. That is what Common and John Legend had to say at the Oscar’s and what many others have been saying as our nation marks the 50th anniversary of the tragic and transformative events that unfolded there in 1965. The work of Selma isn’t done.

The work of Selma isn’t done because voting rights are still being contested. Two years ago the Supreme Court chose to take some of the most important teeth out of the Voting Rights Act. And now, several states have instituted new voter identification requirements which have been widely reported to decrease voter turnout amongst people who are poor, the elderly and people of color.[i] Selma is now.

The work of Selma isn’t done because systemic, institutionalized racism persists. This past week the Department of Justice released their report investigating allegations of civil rights violations in Ferguson. Their report is scathing; it reveals that both the police department and the courts were involved in violating the constitutional rights of African Americans on a repeated and consistent basis.[ii] The details from Ferguson are on our minds now, but this isn’t just a Ferguson, MO problem. Selma is now.

Fifty years ago many Unitarian Universalists heeded the call to go to Selma and this weekend so many more are in Selma commemorating those historic events and reflecting on where we are led at this moment in history. Our response in Selma is a proud chapter for us, but it couldn’t have been predicted. Some of us have been reading Mark Morrison-Reed’s book The Selma Awakening. He makes plain that while Unitarians and Universalists and then eventually Unitarian Universalists have long held life affirming values, for a long time there was a gap between our values and our practice. Yes, there were Unitarian and Universalist visionaries working for abolition, women’s rights, children’s rights, prisoner’s rights, the rights of the mentally ill, peace, health care, education and in most every other major social justice movement since the mid 19th century. However, they were not the majority. And the leadership of the visionaries was countered by the leadership of those who we now would say were standing on the wrong side of history, love and justice.

So it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that we would respond to Selma with such great vigor. Mark Morrison-Reed says the reason it happened as it did was because that moment in history helped expose the gap between values espoused and values in practice. The images on the nightly news brought to the attention of those who would notice the dissonance between what they said they believed and what they did. Many Unitarian Universalists realized in that moment they could no longer accept the dissonance. They wanted to align their lives with their beliefs and so they felt they simply must go to Selma. They went despite the risk. Along with so many African American civil rights activists, two UUs were killed – Reeb and Liuzzo. Those who returned from Selma were transformed by their experience. They were changed by all they had seen and heard and felt. They went home speaking of an experience of wholeness and with an urgent need to devote themselves toward the pursuit of more wholeness in this fractured world.[iii]

Here we are 50 years later and the struggle continues. Yesterday Rev. William J. Barber, the leader of North Carolina’s Mass Moral Movement spoke to those assembled in Selma. He is a man who embraces intersectionality, only he calls it fusion justice. By that he means we all need to be in the work of justice together. One oppression is connected to another and we can’t leave anyone behind. He says the work he is leading isn’t about right or left, Democrat or Republican, it is about morality. If we don’t have voting rights, healthcare, quality education, adequate food or shelter or civil rights protection for all people, who are who going to leave out? That is a moral question, he says, and the only moral answer to the question is nobody. We are not going to leave anybody out.[iv]

That is what Unitarian Universalists say matters to us. It is not enough to simply say what we affirm. To be whole, we must also find ways to put our values into practice. Those who have taken that step before us say that it was worth the risk. They helped to change the world, yes, but they were also changed in profound and powerful ways that made their lives better, more meaningful, more whole. Part of what Morrison-Reed concludes in his book is that people can’t really think themselves into that kind of transformation. For that kind of transformation we need not only to think but also to feel and to act.

So on this 50th anniversary of Selma, learn about the systemic racism that still persists., read about the findings in the Department of Justice report from Ferguson or watch the video of the speech Rev. Barber delivered yesterday. And then consider what can you and your church do to be part of the moral movement for justice?

Sermon excerpt by Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer delivered at the Kent UU Church March 8, 2015