Honoring Two Heroes of Racial Justice
I’ve been finding inspiration and courage reading about the lives of John Lewis and C. T. Vivian who both died last Friday. They were giants of the Civil Rights era whose work continued up until the weeks before they died. Lewis was heartened by the multiracial response to George Floyd’s murder and the change it initiated. He recognized qualities in it that were different from his many years fighting white supremacy that gave him hope. A great capstone to a heroic life committed to racial justice.
There have been many tributes written in the last several days to their self-sacrificing, risk-taking dedication to the methods of non-violent activism during the fight against Jim Crow. From being Freedom Riders challenging segregation on interstate buses, to sit-ins at lunch counters, to voter registration drives, to marches including the 1965 march over the Edmund Pettus bridge, they combined confrontational tactics with dignity, suits and ties, and respect. That included being beaten and arrested numerous times.
John Lewis came to Gandhian non-violence by listening to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach on it. He was aware of Gandhi, had read about him and his methods, but hearing how King integrated it with the non-violent suffering of Jesus, he was converted. King’s genius was that synthesis of Gandhi with Black theology to find an effective path to liberation.
Lewis’ courage to accept suffering without being bowed and coming back for more, staying clear about the demands of the movement speaks to me today. This wasn’t just the idealistic enthusiasm of youth that fades over the years. He kept his eyes focused on the prize that he kept fighting for through good times and bad.
As our congregation and Unitarian Universalism respond to the demands of Black Lives Matter and Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, I have heard expressions from White folks that they don’t like feeling uncomfortable. “Can’t we just all get along, experience a sense of community, and see we share the same values and ends?” “I have my own problems – I don’t come on Sunday to feel shame and guilt.” “I need inspiration and uplift so I can cope with the challenges I’m living with right now.”
This was what Dr. King heard constantly from White people. Yes, your right but these things take time. We’re just not ready yet to make the needed changes. We’ll get there, just be patient. Can’t we all just do this in a way that no one gets upset and we can be agreeable?
Some provocative resolutions were passed at our UUA General Assembly in June. The delegates received a report by the Commission on Institutional Change that had some strong critiques of our institutional habits, patterns, and structures. Those extend beyond just the Unitarian Universalist Association to our member congregations. If we seriously consider these resolutions and reports, I expect some of us will get very uncomfortable. Especially when looking at defunding police departments and looking at our congregation’s interactions with police, especially our alarm system.
Lewis challenges me personally too. The election of our current President in Washington DC had a chilling effect on my speech. I didn’t want to give him power by constantly being reactive to his barrage of tweets. How should one respond to a constant stream, a river, an ocean of lies? I felt trapped not wanting to feed the red-blue division with my outrage. Thankfully, the example of Lewis and Vivian along with the uprising in response to Black death has animated my voice. Our Unitarian Universalist voice is needed in the public square, especially to support and amplify Black and Black UU voices that may not be heard. I have, White folks in our congregation have, power to lend whether or not I have something original to say.
This is an unusual moment right now. White folks are more open than they have been to Black voices and experience than we’ve seen in many years. There is a generational change happening as the result of integrated schools, higher education, and the resurgence and affirmation of racism fostered by our current President. Over 60% of the public is fed up and rejects this vision of what makes America great. We need to make as much progress and change as possible in this moment because we don’t know how long it will last.
So much depends on what happens in November. (UU the Vote!)