Of Thrones and High Places: Lessons from Selma


Selma blogThis is not a movie – this is real life! shouted the elderly woman standing near the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a human wave of tens of thousands rolled past her in a people’s-led march on the day after dignitaries, including the President and Congressman John Lewis, observed the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in a far more officious manner.

The hand-lettered sign she carried read:

Justice is Still Blind in Selma, AL . . . Unfair treatment of citizens by certain persons in high places. We need help in Selma, Alabama.

A forthright statement, a poignant plea that echoes here in Detroit and one that touched me deeply as I watched this solitary woman engage fellow marchers with a resolve similar to that of the persistent widow in Luke, the bold widow whose steadfast tenacity is rewarded by a judge who is finally worn down by her relentless demand:  Grant me justice against my adversary.

Today, forty percent of the people in the predominantly African-American town of Selma, the county seat of the poorest county in Alabama, live below the poverty line. Today,  justice for the people of Selma seems like a faraway dream. The hemorrhaging of industries and jobs in tandem with the brutal legacy of racism in Selma parallels the situation here in Detroit.

unnamed (16)Yes, it is indeed about the unfair treatment of citizens by persons in high places. Whether we are talking about economic impoverishment in Selma or emergency managers here in Detroit, we need to name the injustices, challenge the perpetrators, and then help one another find our way out of this mess.

I had some misgivings about going to Selma for fear of the grassroots being trampled by high-profile celebrities, pundits, and politicians, many of whom would have been among the first to cast stones at the young people who were organizing in Selma fifty years ago. This is the strange and predictable phenomenon of killing the prophet and then placing the corpse on a pedestal. Of making the so-called troublemaker of today the object of tomorrow’s tribute once the crisis has passed.

Although, of course, it hasn’t.

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It is so much easier to sink into nostalgia, to soften the rough edges of history and prettify the terror of the past as a way of avoiding the terror of our own times: the obscene gap between the rich and poor, incessant war, voter suppression by every means imaginable including incarceration, police brutality, the assault on workers’ rights and the environment, and the sinful reality of babies without water living in homes facing foreclosure.

No. The crisis is ongoing and very much alive and calling us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Rather than lionize, we need to organize. Rather than commemorate, we need to collaborate.

If we really want to recognize the grassroots grace and courage of those who were the heart and soul of the movement back then, we must sit at their feet and learn from them – as either mentors or ancestors – and then march alongside the young foot soldiers of our own age who fifty years hence will most likely be denied their own well-deserved place on the dais.

unnamed (14)These angelic troublemakers, as Bayard Rustin called them, may be lauded decades down the road, but they will kept far from the speakers’ platform since one never knows which hard words may spill out of their truth-telling mouths.

If the lives of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and countless others really matter, we must study their lives and share their stories in order to draw strength and sustenance for the work that the present moment demands of us.

unnamed (2)As everyday people poured across the bridge on Sunday without waiting for dignitaries or famous celebrities to lead the way, the feeling of movement as verb rather than noun was palpable.

While a college-age group sang a heartfelt version of We Shall Overcome before stumbling through the lyrics of Which Side Are You On? another group of youth only yards away led a Black Lives Matter chant while behind them older Unitarians marched quietly, toting signs reading, Standing on the Side of Love.

Crowded onto the bridge that day were migrant workers calling for immigration reform and a living wage,  grassroots organizers demanding peace in their neighborhoods, traditional civil rights groups carrying signs reminding youth to vote, and young people with their hands in the air chanting Don’t Shoot.

This weekend served as a reminder that while it is good, right, and necessary to stand on the shoulders of the foot soldiers of the past, it is even more important to lace up our own boots for today’s battles and the struggles to come.

The persistent woman holding her sign near the base of the Pettus Bridge like a tenacious prophet of old is correct. People around the globe are indeed suffering at the hands of certain people in high places, injustices that cry out to heaven.

As the crowd surged, carrying each of us onward and over the bridge, I thought of the woman from Selma and her sign in the context of Mary’s Magnificat:

He has shown the strength of His arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.

unnamed (9)Mary’s words and the words of the woman from Selma took on an even deeper meaning when I later discovered that Selma means “throne” or “high place.”

Coincidence? Clearly, God’s not done troubling the water.

After the march, I reflected on the fact that  while the long arc of history may bend toward justice –  that bend always comes at a price. First here and fifty years later Ferguson. The beat goes on as foot soldiers then and now pay a price for daring to pry history out of the hands of certain persons in high places who use all the money and might they can muster to do harm to people and our beautiful planet for the sake of power and profit.

More than anything, I wanted to have a long conversation with the woman carrying the sign and with everyone else on the bridge, for that matter, about how we can build a world that tilts toward justice, freedom, and peace. A world where the hungry are filled with good things and the lowly are lifted up.  A world where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. A world where the irresistible vision of Beloved Community is taken seriously. A transformed world without thrones and high places.

On the Edge – Spring 2015