This part two of a sermon I preached for Advent at Church of the Sojourners on December 11th, 2020. You can also watch the video or listen to the audio.
Act II: The waiting
In March of 1965, nonviolent activists from the Dallas County Voters League, SNCC, and SCLC organized protest marches from Selma to Montgomery. Their first attempt to cross into Dallas county via the Edmund Pettus bridge resulted in what subsequently became known as, “Bloody Sunday.” State troopers as well as local police used billy clubs and tear gas against marchers, including the late US Representative, John Lewis. It reads, “Mounted police [even] chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.”
That same evening Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists began planning to retry this bridge crossing only two days later. A legal battle to stop them was also underway. They had to decide whether to disobey the pending court order or continue their plans to cross the bride. One account reads:
[A]fter consulting late into the night and early morning with other civil rights leaders and John Doar, the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, King proceeded to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the afternoon of [March 9th]. He led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had answered King’s call on short notice..
But then something strange happened. He “stopped and asked them to kneel and pray.” You can only imagine what was going through his mind. Would he be leading all these people into another “Bloody Sunday”? Or would they finally break through this stronghold of whiteness in the south? We know the end of the story:
After prayers they rose and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether to obey Judge Johnson’s court order. Many marchers were critical of King’s unexpected decision not to push on to Montgomery…”
Indeed, I’ve noticed in my own life that waiting does not feel like courage when I’m actually being attacked. No, it feels like permission, like a trauma waiting to happen. We are physiologically set up for this response. Our heart rate increases, we breathe faster and take shorter breaths, our eyes dilate, peripheral vision increases, our hands and feet get colder as blood rushes to our major muscles. We humans are biologically primed to fight or to escape or to freeze. Of course, this response also may occur at unhelpful times, when there is no discernable threat. Traumatized people, in fact, are often simply triggered by thoughts or memories, loud noises, a song, a smell, and even colors. As a therapist I know that chronic trauma, especially during childhood, may require years of mental health care and practices to integrate and feel safe again in one’s body. So given this reality, how do we even stand a chance against the traumatic social injustices and personal threats we face? How would you respond to this waiting?
For the Selma to Montgomery marchers, it unfolded in unexpected ways. First, President Johnson was moved by the trauma he and the whole world witnessed. He issued a public statement condemning the violence and promised to introduce the Voting Rights Act in a matter of days. This, however, would not be the end of the story. No, a happy ending was not unconditionally promised for those who waited. Here’s how to account reads:
That evening, several local whites attacked James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had come from Massachusetts to join the protest. His death two days later contributed to the rising national concern over the situation in Alabama…
Of course we know, on the other side of this story, that the National Guard eventually protected marchers as they completed their pilgrimage to Montgomery. But maybe we do not remember how the waiting continued, even then, and would keep an unflinching account of every loss, of every person living and dead who had no other choice but to keep moving, to keep waiting. Even when they reached Montgomery, another loss was waiting there. The account continues:
That night, while ferrying Selma demonstrators back home from Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan who had come to Alabama to volunteer, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan.