Thursday, March 5, 2015

Until All People Are Truly Free: On Going To Selma, Fifty Years Later

One Monday at supper in March of 1965, my father, having watched on television the police attacking nonviolent protesters on the bridge at Selma, blurted to my mother that he should go.

Expecting her to discourage him, he was surprised when Barb and their close friend and neighbor Anne Marie encouraged him. With help from Steve Rose, he found himself on a red-eye flight to Atlanta, then connecting flight to Montgomery, and finally a carpool to Selma. His type-written unpublished essay on this journey shaped me and continues to shape me.

My parents’ involvement in the peace and civil rights causes of the 1960s and 70s has had such a huge impact on me that it continues to focus my spiritual journey, as well as my writing and research interests, to this day. Although in retrospect, Ken’s spontaneous decision to join the movement in Selma is remarkable to me, he always downplayed his role in civil rights to us when we were growing up. This coming weekend, I will make my first trip to Montgomery and Selma in part to recommit to civil rights, in part to lead a trip of college students, and in part to honor Ken’s witness 50 years ago.

Although I have been the teacher of record in the college classroom every regular academic semester since the late 1990s, it’s taken me all this time to finally organize a proper “alternative spring break.” About five years ago, two Tennessee Tech students joined my wife and me in our car on a Presbyterian church mission trip to West Virginia, with about a dozen others, mostly retirees from our local congregation. But this weekend we will be pilgrims with a vanload of college freshman and sophomores on an official field trip from our living and learning village, dubbed the Tree House. This weekend, we are going to Montgomery and Selma.

Thanks to the influence of my parents and others, I have been an activist my entire life and a peace and civil rights activist in particular with a profound personal debt for the work and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Lewis Baldwin, my professor in King studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School, came to speak to my class at Tennessee Tech last year, he asked if I would be going to Selma for the bridge crossing jubilee. I told him I would like to go. Back in 1965, my father Ken Smith, only 24-years-old and my older brother Arthur just a baby in Barb’s arms, joined the Tuesday, March 9 march, the second of the three major Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Ken’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease, which finally took his life last May, means that Barb and I will need to make this pilgrimage back to Alabama without him and in his honor.

We know that politicians and celebrities will be there. We also know that some of our mentors through the last several decades in a grassroots Christian witness for peace and justice and antiracism and in a liberation theology for North America, people like Ed Loring and Murphy Davis and Jim Wallis, will also be there.

As we met with colleagues and students over the last few days in Cookeville, we discussed our motives for going. In each case, the students expressed their desire to be a part of the ongoing history of this country’s struggle with race relations, and they also demonstrated an acute awareness that work of the dream remains incomplete and carries on.

After returning from Selma to our home then in the city of Chicago, Ken wrote about his experiences. I have treasured that typescript for years and recently transcribed some of my favorite quotes. As the Selma struggle marked a time when white allies like Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo joined the too long list of martyrs from the movement, it’s clear that Ken took a risk in even going, and it’s clear talking to Mom about this most recently, that they both believed the risk was worth it. As he emphasized in his reflections, Ken still wondered why more people didn’t go. Some excerpts from Ken’s notes summarize the passion I inherited and the debt I owe to my Daddy for bringing me into the movements for peace and justice. I will conclude this meditation with four of those quotes. March on!

1.      “The question of course is asked, ‘Why did you go?’ There are of course many answers to this question, but basically it is quite simple. I went in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for ministers and laymen to join in the struggle. I went because I was appalled at what happened on Sunday. I went because I feel so strongly that all men have a right to be truly free, and until this is the case, my freedom is also limited. However, I feel that everyone has really been asking the wrong question. We should be asking why people didn’t go, and more basically, why most people didn’t even consider going. For God was calling us in this situation to make a decision. Unless we really make a decision on Selma, we are really avoiding what life is all about. I didn’t want to make a decision, but when I did I found that there was only one way I could turn.”

2.      “I went back in the church and heard Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King’s organization, make an impassioned plea for the march to go on. Concern was definitely growing whether or not the march would go on in the face of a federal injunction. This personally created no problem for me. I had come to Selma to do my small part for the ‘Movement’ and had long ago accepted the fact that civil disobedience is often a necessary part of this course of action.”

3.      “As we walked back, I was on the outside and passed very close to the troopers with their billy clubs held behind their backs. Sometimes I had to change my course as I passed by to avoid running into one of them. I looked at them, but found it difficult to ascertain their feelings; some fear, some hate, but mostly professional stoicism. The singing on the way back was much freer. On the way, we sang verses like ‘Black and White Together’ of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ which must really make those Southern gentlemen feel ungentlemanly.”

4.      “The 3000 of us who assembled in Selma last Tuesday, March 9th, in a space of less than 24 hours from distances of more than 2000 miles, were a living demonstration that freedom must come to all. I still have doubts and questions but I was deeply moved and may well return to Selma again.”

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