By: Yolanda Pierce
There is no one singular way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the event known as “Bloody Sunday.” How should we remember the life of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the African American Baptist deacon whose death during a peaceful protest, at the hands of an Alabama state trooper, spurred the events of Bloody Sunday? How should we recognize the hundreds of marchers in Selma on March 7, 1965, who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and instead encountered troopers and police officers who shot them with teargas and beat them with billy clubs? How should we honor a civil rights activist like James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston and Princeton Theological Seminary alumnus, who had come to Selma to march and who was beaten and killed for his support of civil rights? How should we commemorate the unnamed and unknown, the foot soldiers of a movement whose sacrifices history does not recall, those who marched, rallied, prayed, and petitioned for rights they would not even live long enough to experience?
We must approach this work of remembering, recognizing, honoring and commemorating an event like Bloody Sunday unencumbered by nostalgia, and with both hope and sorrow at our present and future moments. We need to remember the fullness of the story and the complicated and messy context of any struggle for human rights. Plaques and monuments are not enough to interrogate the history and legacy of racial injustice in this country. As a Christian community, the memory of events like Bloody Sunday need to abide within the inner recesses of our souls.
Remember… organizing for the Selma to Montgomery March took place at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, led in part by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and with the leadership of both clergy and laity. But we cannot suffer under the illusion that all churches, or even many churches supported the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Many Christians, black and white, Northern and Southern, felt that the struggle for equality, desegregation, and voting rights was too political, too radical of a cause for the Christian church. Many churches and pastors remained silent; some voiced their support for continuing segregation, Jim and Jane Crow, and policies of “separate but equal.” And yet, other churches and pastors dared to speak courageously and risk pulpits, positions, and lives for justice and righteousness. When we remember Bloody Sunday, we are challenged to think about whether our faith is bold enough and strong enough to affirm that all are made in God’s image and are equally precious in God’s sight.
Remember… Bloody Sunday wasn’t an isolated event, even during the 1960’s. While most civil rights protestors and activists embraced a practice of non-violence, they faced horrific bodily violence from police dogs, water hoses, tear gas, billy clubs, church bombings, lynchings, beatings, and mass arrests. The violence faced by the Selma to Montgomery marchers was televised; accounts and photographs appeared in almost every major newspaper immediately after the events. The country had documentary evidence of the brutality endured by peaceful protestors. And while this particular footage and other iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement propelled the cause forward, the work for justice continued even when the cameras were not rolling and the photographers were not shooting. When we remember Bloody Sunday, we are challenged to believe and honor the stories of those at the margins, those living on the underside of history whose suffering often goes unrecognized and invalidated.
Remember… Bloody Sunday is not an aberration in this country’s racial history. Barely two days before the 50th Anniversary March in Selma, the Department of Justice released a report detailing civil rights abuses experienced by African Americans in Ferguson, Missouri. The report gave a glimpse into the unchecked institutional racism in this small community, still reeling from the August 9, 2014 shooting death of unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown. The juxtaposition of these two events should startle us: the nation commemorated 50 years since Bloody Sunday and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while simultaneously receiving a report of systemic racism and Civil Rights violations being faced in 2015, at the hands of state officials. When we remember Bloody Sunday, we are challenged to think about how much work we still need to do in order to heal the wounds of segregation and racism.
In our churches, we gather periodically at the communion table to remember the work of Christ: his life, his death, his resurrection, and his promises to us. The sacrament that is at the heart of our faith is to remember the pain of the crucifixion even as we rest in the blessed hope of Christ’s return. This “memory” work provides a model for how we can commemorate events like Bloody Sunday: excavating the details of the past, so that we know the fullness of the story; lamenting and mourning the pain endured and the sacrifices made; and praying, hoping, and working for a more just present and future. When we remember, we literally make the past present again; we give life and flesh to our history with implications for our future. In remembering Bloody Sunday, we honor James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson and Amelia Boynton and John Lewis and Diane Nash and countless others – but we don’t rest upon their labors. There is too much work yet to be done.
Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature, and the Director of the Black Church Studies Department at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is also the Book Review Editor for Pneuma: The Journal for the Society of Pentecostal Studies. She is a Professor, Author, Preacher, Columnist, and MSNBC Contributor.