There are places in the world that are of significant importance in terms of the events that have happened in those places and the impact said events have had on a world scale afterwards. Perhaps one would think of Auschwitz in Poland as such a place, or Ground Zero in New York City. These are examples of places where significant human suffering happened. They are also examples of places in which, in the face of human suffering, humanity appeared to ultimately unite in order to recover well and subsequently find a new way forward, making the world a better place.
This week I have found myself in a series of such places.
The State of Alabama (U.S.A.) is home to three places that are, in my opinion, three of the most significant sites in the world in terms of the importance of the events that took place in them, and also in terms of the ripples of impact that spread across the world, ripples that were generated by these events. These three places are Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.
During the last week, as part of my studies with Wesley Theological Seminary, I have had the opportunity to take a class/make a pilgrimage to these sites in order to study the stories and legacy of the American Civil Rights movement. In the following paragraphs, I would like to offer some of the primary reflections I noted as my week there progressed.
1. Human beings in so called civil societies possess the ability to treat horrendously their fellow humans.
I knew this already. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, where hearing stories of abhorrent acts of violence between humans was a normal part of daily life, I absolutely knew just how badly we can treat one another. But this last week it was impressed on me again as I heard the stories of lynchings, the general de-humanizing and mistreatment of African Americans, the bombing of 16th Avenue Baptist Church in which four little girls had their lives robbed from them, and the brutality with which local law enforcement beat and trampled the black people of Selma as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Recently, I find myself grieving the violence that humans inflict on one another. As I watched the movie Dunkirk, I could not help but grieve what humans do to each other. As I moved through Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, I felt exactly the same. I was just so deeply saddened by the human ability to cheapen life and see it as something that is expendable in the name of a cause or ideology. The Declaration of Independence states:
…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
How can it be that in a nation founded on such truths; a civilized nation, such abhorrent treatment of human beings could be allowed to take place?
Human life is precious.
Even when human life exists in the most depraved and cruel human beings, it is still precious.
Humans are created in the image of God. Therefore, human life is absolutely precious and should ALWAYS be highly valued.
2. “What will I be willing to die for?”
This question came back again and again as the week went on. In each site we visited we were told of attacks upon the African American people; attacks which, in some cases, led to terrible human loss. For example, in the 16th Street Baptist bombing, 4 little girls lost their lives. In Selma blood was shed as marchers absorbed the violence of the authorities. On Christmas Day in 1956, Fred Shuttlesworth’s parsonage was bombed (an attack which Rev. Shuttlesworth survived). Although each attack brought its own pain, and inflicted unimaginable suffering upon families and entire communities, the pain and suffering seemed to be that which galvanised these communities to take their next faithful steps to freedom. Rev. Shuttlesworth recognized that in the fight for freedom, “Somebody may have to die.” and proved himself willing to take the hits which came his way again and again and again.
As I reflected on this thought with my classmates, I could not help but ask myself what it is that I am willing to die for? What is it that I am willing to go all the way for? What cause or situation will I willingly bear pain for?
In churches across the world, privileged, well-off Christians like me sing the old refrain, “I surrender all” with passion and gusto. We kneel in submission to God at the alter rails of our churches, symbolizing our willingness to go all the way for Christ. But are we really willing to submit and surrender? Am I really willing to take up my cross and join Christ in his sufferings for the sake of the Kingdom; for the sake of my suffering fellow humans in the world? If I am honest, I can say that in my head and in my heart, I absolutely WANT to be willing to follow Christ all the way into the world, but will my desire to follow Christ prove substantial if it ever begins to cost me physically? Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and many un-named and not so famous members of the African America community made a choice and declared that their personal freedom and the freedom of their people was important enough that it was worth suffering for; worth deliberately putting themselves in harms way agains and again and again for. Their courage, faith, and rugged determination is not only admirable, but also enviable.
As I got to the end of the week I had found myself reflecting on the fact that Dr. King and his peers had sold themselves out to a philosophy, and sold themselves out to a vision. Completely. They had a goal to move towards and they resolutely set out towards the fulfilling of that goal.
What are your goals?
What philosophy are you sold out to?
What are my goals?
What philosophy am I sold out to?
What is my cause?
What I am willing to suffer for it?
I personify the idea of privilege in life. I have never wanted for anything. I have never been looked down upon because of the color of my skin. I have never been discriminated against because of my gender or sexuality. I have never been so poor that I do not know where I will get my next meal. I am an immigrant, but I am a white, English-speaking immigrant, so I have never experienced any kind of maltreatment as other immigrants do. I have never experienced suffering personally, or among my people group, that would have put me in a position to have to fight for freedom or for legally protected rights that were being with withheld from me.
I, too, sing that refrain, “I surrender all” but would I really be willing to? This alone was the most massive challenge of my week: I am called to not only sing, “I surrender all,” but to live it out. My sincere prayer is that my willingness to surrender all will only increase from this point forward.
3. Civil Rights leaders were young.
Martin Luther King was only 24 years old when he was appointed as the Senior Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. He already had achieved his doctoral degree by this time, and he would go on to spend the next 15 years at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement before his untimely death in 1968. Fred Shuttlesworth was 31 when he became the Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham and spent 8 years there at the forefront of the Civil Rights struggle in America’s south, before moving to Ohio (Incidentally, Shuttleworth remained in close contact and regularly flew back to meetings with the movement leaders in Birmingham).
My point is that these were not leaders who had served their time in a system which would eventually reward them with esteemed positions of leadership. They were young men who were willing to step out in front and lead their people in the march towards freedom. They preached with authority. They kept their eyes on the prize, and kept moving forward towards it.
As I stated, Dr. King came to the fore at 24 years of age, and his life was ended prematurely at the age of 39. He had 15 years.
I had never really thought about that until this week, and, even though I myself have just turned 39, I could not help but ask myself this: As a still relatively young leader in the Christian faith, if I had only 15 more years to live and lead, what would I be determined to achieve in that time frame? Again, the question has to be asked – what am I sold out to, and what am I willing to suffer for?
4. The march towards freedom must continue.
American society has come a long way since the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century. Many of the specific struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s may no longer appear to be the primary struggles of the Civil Rights movement. However, the reality is that while some landmark achievements were indeed made, there is still much work to be done in order to right some of the wrongs that continue to exist in America. This was so clear to me as I walked through Kelly Ingram park, across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The park is designed as a memorial of the hardest days of the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham, and celebrates the end of segregation in the south. As I walked through the park, I saw several homeless people asleep in the park. In seeing them both, I could not help but remember that the march to freedom that we had been learning about all week is far from over. Economic Inequality, educational underachievement among working class minority communities, discrimination in the work place, gender inequality and the general effects of relative poverty are still all stark realities in the United States. The work of the Civil Rights movement is not finished and must continue, and the church can absolutely play an important part in that.
5. Size doesn’t matter.
Before this last week, the dominant image, in my mind, of the US Civil Rights was always the image of Dr. King speaking and preaching at mass meetings at which vast crowds had gathered. My impression was that it was his celebrity that drew crowds, and that the currency of the movement was the size of the crowds. However, the reality is that much of the work of the Civil Rights movement was lead and made real in little churches. The church was at the center of the movement, because the church still had pride of place at the center of African American communities. The churches we visited last week were not large churches. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church only ever had a couple of hundred members at it’s height. Brown Chapel AME had a similar number in it’s congregation.
Often, in our culture, we can be guilty of assuming that the power to achieve great things only lies with churches or groups that are well resourced, but the evidence of the Civil Rights Movement tells a different story. The evidence of the Civil Rights Movement of 1950’s and 60’s American suggests that where there is a people who are motivated and united; where there is a people who are led diligently by focussed, informed, organized and dedicated leaders, great and significant things can be achieved. Success and the achievement of goals is not limited to large and seemingly influential groups. Any body of people can achieve their goals if they are sold out to the vision, led ably, and are willing to stand together in unity. Size does not matter.
6. Leadership matters.
This, also, is a well known truth, and I have already made several references to it throughout this piece. The Civil Rights Movement shows that leadership absolutely matters. Without Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, Diane Nash, etc, the movement would not have had the widespread impact that it ultimately did have. These leaders were captivated by a vision of freedom, they were willing to suffer in order to win this freedom, they were committed to leading non violently, and they were united.
The Civil Rights Movement was without doubt one of the most, if not the most significant civilian movement of the 20th century. The ripples of its impact spread far and wide throughout the world, and they continue to do so. I have been inspired by the example of strong and focussed leadership, the willingness to suffer and pay a price for a cause, and the ability to influence and bring about change through non-violent means.