It was March 7, 1965, a day remembered in the civil rights movement as “Bloody Sunday.” A group of African Americans were planning to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to demand that they be given the legal right to vote without any unnecessary encumbrances. Six hundred men and women began their march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be greeted by a line of state troopers waiting for them with billy clubs and gas masks, and members of an all-white county posse, composed of men who had been deputized to participate only the night before. The non-violent marchers were told to go back home or “go to your church.” Television cameras, such as these scenes from CBS, were broadcast around the world showing how the marchers were run over and beaten by “law enforcement.”
In the 2014 film by Ava DuVernay , Selma, the general outline of the story is depicted, showing how the marchers were eventually able to complete their march to Montgomery, which resulted in President Lyndon Johnson urging Congress to pass the Voters Rights Act of 1965. Critics have made much of DuVernay’s negative portrayal of President Johnson as being directly antagonistic towards the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., so one might complain of the tendency to oversimplify the narrative regarding what happened in Selma, and King himself was far from perfect.
Nevertheless, as I was watching the film, I kept thinking to myself, where were the followers of Jesus on that “Bloody Sunday” morning? As the state troopers were putting on their gas masks, they acknowledged that among the marchers were many Christians. And yet, I wonder where were the white Christians? Were the white Christians of Selma all in their churches that morning worshipping God? Upon hearing the television reports, did they come out and lend a hand to their African American brothers and sisters in the Lord as they were bleeding in the streets?
There were many who saw the events of “Bloody Sunday” unfold before them on their television sets across the world, and some responded by traveling to Alabama to participate in a future attempted march. One of these was a Unitarian Univeralist minister from Boston, James Reeb. Much like the Samaritans in first century Palestine, who were viewed in John 4:19-25 as theologically suspect with their call to worship on Mount Gerizim instead of the correct place, Jerusalem, Unitarian Univeralists fifty years ago as well as today are viewed as being theologically suspect among evangelicals. Yet why was it that someone like James Reeb became a martyr for the civil rights movement when he was beaten to death by white supremacists in Selma, and not a more theologically-sound born again Christian? Is it fair to say as in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, that James Reeb was like a modern day “Samaritan?”
Much has changed in fifty years, but it is the silence of the predominantly white, evangelical church during those tumultuous years that most disturbs me. In light of the teaching of Scripture, the silence is deafening. How was it that the evangelical church had became so complicit in the sin of racism, compromising their witness for the Gospel?
They had their Bibles. They had the message of truth and reconciliation.
Where were these “followers of Jesus?”