The Fierce Urgency of Now
(Based on a sermon given to a gathering of Unitarian Universalists at All Souls Church, Unitarian on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington)
Our reading this morning is an excerpt from Dr. King’s address to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It’s a passage from the beginning of that speech where he reminds people of the importance of that particular moment and occasion. King said:
“[My friends] we have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood….
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of this moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality…
Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.”
Fifty years ago this week hundreds and hundreds of Unitarian Universalists from across the nation gathered in this sanctuary to sing and pray and then march together out the doors of the church to join Dr. King and thousands more on the Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Just take a look at the photograph of them pouring out of the church into the sweltering August humidity, yet dressed impeccably. Women and men. Black and white. Young and old. Shoulder-to-shoulder. This is one of my favorite images of All Souls Church, because for me it truly represents a glimpse of the Beloved Community that Dr. King spoke of.
Yet from where I stand, looking out on all of you, we, too, are a glimpse of that Beloved Community. We, too, are young and old. People of different races and cultures and sexual orientations. Different beliefs. Joining together to lift up our common humanity. Marching, praying, singing for our lives.
In his address to the 1963 marchers, Dr. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” This was no time for complacency or gradualism, he said, the “sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
That line caught my eye because it seems to me that we, too, have endured a summer of racial discontent in our nation. A summer that began with the Supreme Court of the United States eviscerating the Voting Rights Act. A summer that came to a boil with a Florida jury acquitting George Zimmerman of the murder of Trayvon Martin. No matter what your opinion of the decision itself, the verdict was one of those moments that revealed the great gulf in perspective and experience between black and white Americans. And a summer that ended—finally and shamefully—with the United States Congress adjourning once again without passing comprehensive immigration reform that would allow a path to citizenship and dignity for millions of undocumented Americans. We have, indeed, endured our own summer of racial discontent.
And I find myself looking at the photograph of our Unitarian Universalist ancestors above, pouring out of the church, and asking what they might teach us about the fierce urgency of now. The fierce urgency of our own present moment.
One of the people who was no doubt present at All Souls on that morning fifty years ago—and who would’ve been working behind the scenes to make sure everything ran smoothly—was the church’s associate minister at the time, the Rev. James Reeb. In fact, the March on Washington had to have been a highlight of Reeb’s ministry at All Souls, because racial justice was his abiding call. He had helped found and lead a partnership between All Souls and nearby Howard University to address the rising poverty in the Washington. And so he was known in the city as a white ally to people of color. It must have delighted Jim to no end to be joined by his fellow Unitarians here at All Souls to march for racial justice. If we could blow up that photo on the cover of our program, somewhere on the steps of the church we’d see the bright, young, bespectacled face of James Reeb.
Eighteen months later, though, Jim Reeb lay dead on a hospital bed in Birmingham, Alabama. Some of you know the story—or pieces of it. It’s a story that begins on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, where Alabama state troopers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The next day Dr. King asked for help, calling on white northerners to accompany African Americans in Selma as they re-grouped for another march. The theory being that the police wouldn’t treat white folks they way they’d treated the black demonstrators. Reeb, like many Unitarian Universalist clergy and laypeople, heeded that call and hopped the next flight to Selma.
Unwelcome in white establishments, the visitors took their meals that first night in blacks-only restaurants. After dining in one such restaurant, Reeb walked outside to use the pay phone to call his wife, Marie, and check in on their children. After he hung up, he turned and found himself surrounded by a group of white segregationists who beat him to a pulp with a baseball bat. He died two days later at the age of 38.
The next morning James Reeb’s face appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country and sparked a public outcry. [An outcry, incidentally, that hadn’t occurred when, just a week earlier, a young black demonstrator named Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by Alabama police]. Taking advantage of the public outrage, President Johnson the next week called a joint session of congress to introduce landmark civil rights legislation, saying, in part:
At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man—a man of God—was killed.
Four months later, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which paved the way for the enfranchisement of millions of African Americans. After the bill’s passage, a reporter asked Reeb’s wife, Marie, whether she felt the new legislation in any way redeemed his death. All she could say was, “Jim would have thought the movement was worth any sacrifice.”
Friends, Jimmie Lee Jackson and Jim Reeb gave their lives for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the same bill that this June was effectively gutted by the Supreme Court, freeing the way for Texas and North Carolina and other states to roll back the clock on their election laws and pass legislation that restricts voting access for students, immigrants, the working poor, people of color, and the formerly incarcerated. Make no mistake about it: Just like during Jim Crow, these laws represent a deliberate attempt on the part of a white establishment who can no longer win elections in which all Americans vote, to hold on to power by making sure only some Americans vote. This is a moral outrage.
Friends, a Unitarian Universalist minister was clubbed to death by a baseball bat so that others might have the right to vote. We cannot stand by silently while that right is once again eroded. In the name of James Reeb, and Jimmie Lee Jackson, and all those who struggled for voting rights—and for the sake of our democracy—we must protect every American’s access to the ballot box.
And so we commemorate this fiftieth anniversary not only to honor what happened back then, but also to respond to the fierce urgency of now. Of our own present moment.
We march because nearly fifty years after Jim Reeb’s death sparked the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that victory is being eroded in state houses across the country. We march because fifty years after Dr. King dreamed that children would not be judged by the color of their skin, young Trayvon Martin was gunned down in Florida—at least in part—for that very reason. We march because fifty years after Dr. King had a dream, thousands of children of undocumented immigrants—the so-called “Dreamers”—also dream of attending college, yet are denied student aid because congress can’t pass immigration reform. We march because fifty years after Dr. King lamented that 11:00 am on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America, it still is. Less than 8% of American congregations are racially and culturally diverse. We march because dreams of justice are still dreamed. And while some have come true, others have yet to be realized. We march because after our own summer of racial discontent we, too, must respond to the fierce urgency of now.
The fierce urgency of now. Those words of Dr. King resonate with a central insight of Unitarian Universalism. For ours is a faith that is less concerned with the fate of our souls in the bye and bye, and more with the plight of our brothers and sisters in the here and now. “Write it on your heart,” said Emerson, “One of the illusions of life is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour.”
As I typed those words of Emerson’s into my computer this morning, my one-and-half-year old son woke up and cried to me from the room next door: “da-DA!” He is my own little bundle of fiercely urgent now. This is what our faith teaches: that the present moment always calls to us, always clamors for attention like a young child. And, like that child, is always worthy of our fierce and urgent love. May we bring that love to bear…now! Amen.