Last week, I had my first Spring Break of Divinity School. I fought off all my urges to travel to a tropical location and flash strangers (Springer Break anyone?) and was excited to spend time in the library getting ahead on final research papers. You know – getting crazy – future clergy style. Hallelujah, I found better plans – ones that actually involve this world I am so intent on learning about.
I was given the opportunity to travel with Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) to the anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. The march was to remember Bloody Sunday and the courage of those who marched the 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. King 47 years ago. Yet walking this historical route was also about remembering the dreams of equality and justice that have not yet been reached. It was a reminder that we are not done marching.
The event was framed as a protest of the Voter ID law that passed in Alabama (and is being taken up in other states currently). The last two days of the march also were focused on HB56 – the draconian Alabama anti-immigration law that drastically curtails access to basic services for undocumented immigrants and their communities. It was a powerful experience to hear “Si Se Puede” chanted after singing “Ain’t Nobody Going To Turn Me Round.” The march echoed the very words delivered in Montgomery 47 years ago:
Let us march on ballot boxes until brotherhood becomes more than a meaningless word in an opening prayer, but the order of the day on every legislative agenda.
Let us march on ballot boxes until all over Alabama, God’s children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor.
I found myself marching next to all different types of people: from nuns from Montgomery to Buddhist peace drummers. From labor union members who travelled from Minnesota to a six year old with a video camera and a future in reporting. I could problematize the march and the identity politics and bring out my critical lens. I am trying to get a graduate degree – all I do is problematize. Hell, I just problematized that last sentence five times before typing it (that means I get an A right?). But I was on Spring Break and so was my critical eye. Instead I want to share some of the stories of courage I was privileged enough to hear. This is a post about parakaleo, a Greek word meaning to walk alongside someone in support and solidarity. Parakaleo asks us to put down the need to see a situation from every angle and asks us to take up beside another and for a little while try and see what they are seeing.
On the last day of the March, before we reached Dexter Avenue (the street that holds the State Capitol as well as Dexter Avenue Baptist where King preached) I found myself walking next to a man with a button on his hat that said “Original Marcher 1965.” I asked him where he was from and he left his friends and came and walked with me for a while. His name is C.D. Hamilton and he is a pastor in Northern Alabama. At the time of the original Selma to Montgomery march he was an associate minister at a Baptist church in Selma. He told me about being able to feel the Klan pressure in the air and the fear that clung to people in the movement and those supportive of it. The marchers had asked to sleep in the church where he was working. This was not an easy request, for many nights not all the marchers could find places willing to risk sheltering them and often slept in fields. The Reverend Hamilton told me that the head pastor at his church gave him the keys to the church and left town, fearing for his life.
The Reverend Hamilton then explained that he did what he knew he had to do and how he opened up the church doors for his fellow marchers. And then he said this, “I was 25 years old. There was but one thing the Klan could do: kill me. And I wouldn’t have been the first they killed, and I wouldn’t have been the last.”
This comment hit me hard. This comment should hit me hard. I am currently 25 years old and studying to be a minister. I am not sure I have that kind of courage within me. I began to see the seemingly small acts of courage all over the march for what they were – staring down the powerful eyes of injustice despite the fear of consequences.
I was reminded of Victor, an undocumented student, who spoke at a rally about his experience as an immigrant and called for the repeal of HB56. He spoke with passion and a fire that looked beyond the fact that his disclosure could have him deported. I was reminded that St. Jude’s, the school that hosted the rally the night before the last day of the march had opened its doors to the original marchers in 1965 despite losing funding from supporters and donors who disagreed with their “political actions.” I was reminded of Al Sharpton using his power and platform to present a different face of Christianity when he demanded that, “The Christian Right has to meet the right Christians.”
I was also reminded of the courage it took to open up the march to other people and issues; creating space in a historic memorial for new faces, issues and voices. The speakers and chants addressed injustice’s many forms highlighting: voter ID laws, anti-immigration laws, the need for education reform as well as the current “war on women.”
It would have been easy to rest on history and congratulate ourselves for how far we have come. Yet all these people came out to march an old route with a new purpose. The Reverend Hamilton is marching the same path he marched all those years ago because he said that his work is not yet done. As we walked through Montgomery – we kept seeing signs to mark our walk as a historical route. Yet this route went through neighborhoods experiencing clear poverty and high rates of unemployment. There were abandoned and foreclosed houses everywhere. I asked the Reverend Hamilton about this and he said that 47 years ago this was a flourishing neighborhood and that many of the businesses had been abandoned and that the houses had fallen into disrepair. Looking back on the prophetic speech Dr. King delivered in Montgomery, it becomes apparent we are still marching for many of the same things:
Let us march on segregated housing until every ghetto or social and economic depression dissolves, and Negroes and whites live side by side in decent, safe, and sanitary housing. Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past, and Negroes and whites study side-by-side in the socially-healing context of the classroom.
Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat. March on poverty until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist.
There was a lot to march for in 1965. There is a lot to march for in 2012. Some people have not stopped marching those 47 years. I needed to get out of the library and learn through walking with people and hearing their stories. I can only hope that I can keep marching with those who are making change – because we have a long way to go.
We have new neighbors to welcome, neighborhoods to revive, an education system to fix, a war on women to stop – I could go on. All this is going to take a lot of marching. It is going to take walking with people who do not look like us, or live near us or even agree with us. We will march until all of “God’s children will be able to walk the Earth in dignity and honor.”
Dr. King said in Montgomery that, “the arc of justice is wide but it bends toward justice” – and we have walk with it to make sure it keeps bending. So as I head back to my school existence – I hope I can learn from the Reverend Hamilton and Victor and St. Jude’s. I can hope I will remember to leave the library and walk out my commitments more – because Lord knows the revolution won’t have an annotated bibliography.
Photo taken by Rachel Kinney