Selma to Ferguson

Selma to Ferguson
Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 18, 2015

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund recently produced a list of 76 names of unarmed people of color killed by police over the past 15 years. Eric Garner, choked to death in New York City while saying “I can’t breathe.” Michael Brown shot by an officer in Ferguson, MO. Tamir Rice, a 12 year-old boy holding a BB gun, shot and killed in Cleveland, OH. The 76 names are not all the people of color killed by police in the last 15 years, just those who were unarmed. (CLICK Here to read the full list.) Another statistic I stumbled across recently came from incomplete data showing that a black person is killed every 28 hours in our country and that a black person is killed by a white police officer more than twice a week. Those numbers would include the armed as well as the unarmed people of color. Yet another figure I read estimated that the numbers are not all that different from the number of lynching deaths that happened through the 19th and 20th century.

The song by Michael Franti (“Same as It Ever Was” by Michael Franti and Spearhead. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iWvBh6jNlY), which we had as our offertory today, says things are the same as they ever were. In the summer of 1964, three young civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner, were arrested and then released into the hands of Klansmen as part of plot to have them murdered. This was down in Mississippi. The three young men were shot and their bodies were buried in an earthen dam.

As it happened, two of these young men were white and from New York. An outcry arose at their disappearance and the FBI ordered an investigation. Attorney General Robert Kennedy learned of the investigation, dubbed “Mississippi Burning,” and escalated the search to the point that 150 federal agents were sent in. Within a day, hundreds of sailors from a nearby naval base were searching the swamps. They did not find the three young men, as I said the bodies had been buried elsewhere. But agents did find bodies.

They discovered the bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, college students who had been kidnapped, beaten and killed a month earlier. They found the body of 14-year old Herbert Oarsby, and the bodies of five other unidentified black Mississippian. But the disappearance and suspected murder of all these black men and boys had gone uninvestigated, unnoted in the national news. They only found them by accident while looking for the bodies of two white men and their black friend.

Sweet Honey in the Rock has a song called “Ella’s Song” based on the teachings of civil rights organizer Ella Baker. Ella knew about the events surrounding the murder and subsequent search and investigation for the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Ella said “Until killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest, until this happens.” From this Bernice Johnson Reagan had the root of her song, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

In 1955 Lamar Smith was shot dead on a Mississippi courthouse lawn by a white man in broad daylight while dozens of people watched. The killer was never indicted because no one would admit they saw a white man shoot a black man. Smith had been organizing blacks to vote in a recent election. This was about two weeks prior to the murder of Emmett Till.

Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy on vacation from Chicago, who reportedly flirted with a white woman in a store. Three nights later, men took Emmett Till from his bed, beat him, shot him and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury found the men innocent of murder. The decision of his mother to have an open casket funeral made it hard for people to continue to think there was no real problem of racism and violence against blacks in our country.

The killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Alabama by state troopers led to the march from Selma to Montgomery. The murder of white Unitarian Rev. James Reeb galvanized the north against segregation and the violence experienced by blacks in the south. It is important to remember the civil rights was not just about voting rights and access of public water fountains and public schools. It was about the deadly violence waged against blacks on a regular basis in our country, violence in which the police were often complicit if not outright responsible.

What we have seen in our country over the past few months with the attention in Ferguson and New York City is not all that different from what was happening in Mississippi in the 50’s and 60’s. Same as it ever was. But every day is a time to start anew. This is why people are saying “Black lives matter.”

It has been a point of frustration for me and many I know to get behind the “Black Lives Matter” logo when the heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith, the heart of my personal values and conviction, insist that All Lives Matter. The inherent worth and dignity of all people is a central aspect of our theology. Unfortunately our American culture has a long history of treating some people as more valued and targeting other people unfairly. The history and the lived reality get in the way of the ideal of being color-blind to race and ethnicity in our society.

To say that black lives matter is not to say that other lives do not. Indeed, the reverse is true. The slogan recognizes that all lives matter while acknowledging that African Americans are unfairly targeted, a reality supported by research and experience. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow focuses the issue even more tightly saying that young black men are particularly at risk of unequal, unfair, and unjust treatment. Then I fall into conversations where people read out the list of names of female people of color killed over the past year or the transgender people killed recently. Yes. All lives matter.

But what is happening is an organic grassroots level of attention on a specific recurring problem we have as a society. The spotlight is shining on a particular aspect of injustice. In the face of that when people say ‘All Lives Matter’ it defuses the focus, the energy, and the possibility that something real might change.

I don’t know that you will agree with me and my frustration. Perhaps I am parsing my point too closely. “Between rocking the boat and sitting down; between stirring things up, and peaceably going along, we find ourselves here in community.” –Manish Mishra-Marzetti. I’m trying to stir things up. The statement of Black Lives Matter should lead us to say that of course all lives matter. But if all lives really mattered no one would feel compelled to insist that Black Lives Matter, and the truth of it is that at this moment in the life of our country, the lives of black men and boys do not seem to matter a whole lot.

Something in these most recent police killings of unarmed black man has captured the attention of communities. I’m not certain why Ferguson became the flash point. The situation with Eric Garner’s death seems much clearer to me. The medical examiner ruled it homicide, but the grand jury decided not to indict. He said “I can’t breathe.” Protesters picked up the cry.

The situation with Michael Brown is less clear. The conflicting evidence and testimonies make it hard for me to offer an unequivocal opinion. I hear the argument that the officer’s actions were justified given one version of the facts. But even given that version of the facts, there is a big difference between justified and justice. Were the officers justified in what they did to Eric Garner, I don’t think so and it certainly wasn’t justice. Was the officer justified in his actions against Michael Brown, I don’t know – but I do know it was not justice.

But whatever the particular facts of the cases, there is certainly a larger picture of unfair and unjust treatment at stake. The excessive use of force, the deadly use of force by police officers against people of color in general and black men in particular is a problem in our country. The solution I am looking for is not complete with a few marches and speeches. A solution to this problem is not found in perpetuating a division between people of color and white police officers. The police will need to be part of the solution.

This is part of the genius of the 60’s Civil Rights movement that today’s movement can learn from. King and other leaders insisted that we acknowledge the reality of the situation – black people in the south were being disrespected, brutalized, and lynched on a regular basis by white people. But the Civil Rights movement did not stop with that analysis. They went on to say the solution is for us to come together to stop this behavior and build a new way forward for all of us. They didn’t rush to the solution of all being color-blind and we shouldn’t either. But they didn’t demonize all police or all white people or all southerners when naming the reality of the situation – and we shouldn’t either.

Here is another thing they knew 50 years ago that many people seem to have forgotten. The key is to be organized. Again and again I hear people asking who the new Dr. King is for Ferguson. Which leader at the rallies is the one to give the great speeches to stir the people and lead us to change? What we miss with that question is that we don’t need another Dr. King. What we need is another Ella Baker and another Medgar Evens. We need more James Farmers and Fannie Lou Hammers and A. Philip Randolphs – we need organizers steady in the background more than we need speakers out in front.

And third, what I see in the efforts of the 60’s Civil Rights that needs to emerge in today’s situation is the kind of focus for change in particulars and details. The ultimate goal of the Civil Rights movement from 50 years ago is that same one people want for today: to end the violence against people of color, so young black men and indeed all people can trust the police and can live in peace. But the Civil Rights movement was also about getting the right to vote, desegregating public schools and public buses and public lunch counters and drinking fountains and bathrooms.

Today’s movement needs that kind of focus. Maybe it would be something along the lines of better integrating the police force – you know part of the story with Ferguson is that the town is predominantly people of color but the police force is overwhelmingly white. Maybe the focus is about the concept of community policing – getting officers out of their cars and meeting the people in the neighborhoods. Maybe it should be about demilitarizing our police or closing the easy imprisonment of people of color. Maybe the focus is about laws for independent review boards or independent investigators whenever there is an incident of an officer using deadly force. I don’t know what it needs to be but I know it needs to be something particular and my gut tells me it needs to involve the police. The police need to be part of the solution.

From Selma to Ferguson has been in some ways a long road of progress yet in other ways we seem to have barely left town. There have been significant changes these past fifty years: voting rights, the end to Jim Crow laws and legalized segregation and discrimination, and cultural acceptance of African Americans in business, politics, and personal relationships has grown. Fifty years ago people were still arguing about interracial marriages. We have made progress since we marched out of Selma. Progress toward our humanity as a country. But the road is longer than we thought. Arriving in Ferguson we see that there is still a long road ahead. Yet there is still cause for hope.

As King said at the eulogy of Rev. Jim Reeb, (which was our reading this morning)

I am not yet discouraged about the future… Granted, that those who pioneered in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms and painful threats of death… Granted, that we face a world crisis, which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life’s restless seas. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities, its valleys of salvation or doom in a dark, confused world. The kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.

So we find ourselves standing in the “surging murmur of life’s restless seas” watching trouble brew and wondering at our part in the events of today and tomorrow. Let us declare ourselves for love, let us be among the people who did stand witness and did lend a hand. Let us be on the list of those who spoke up for justice and freedom amid the clamor and confusion and chaos. Let us declare ourselves for love.

In a world without end,
May it be so.