You Could Be Shot!
The sons of Israel – yes, even then the culture was defined as male though half were females – the people of Israel had gone to Egypt because of famine in Canaan. There they became enslaved. Finally, God called up Moses to confront Pharaoh with the words, “Let My People Go!”
Many centuries later, another prophet, a fellow named Jesus, confronted money changers in the Jerusalem temple. They were running a scam, trading Jewish money for Roman money at a profit, causing unmerciful poverty among the faithful Hebrews.
Yes, most major changes for good in human history have come when brave ones have risen up to challenge the status quo, very often at the risk of prison and death.
This morning’s message is not your typical sermon. It’s a single story of a hugely important event in American history. I tell it because I was there, and because it represents the risks people of good will must take to coach the world into peace.
In 1965, there was an intense drama in Selma, Alabama. Voting rights for people of color was the stated issue. More truly, America’s pernicious and persistent racism was the back story for this event. In Selma, on Sunday March 7th, a mostly black group of 600 tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the east side of town, on its way to Montgomery to demonstrate for the right to vote. By direction of George Wallace, the highest elected official of Alabama, State Troopers and local police ordered the marchers to turn around. When the protesters non-violently refused, the officers shot tear-gas, and beat the nonviolent marchers with billy clubs. Over fifty people were hospitalized, including Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader, the Rev. John Lewis, who, with the Rev. Hosea Williams, representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led this first march from Selma.
Two days later, on Tuesday the 9th, the demonstrators started out again, this time led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., founder of the SCLC. Already a Nobel Peace Prize holder, he turned the march around when again confronted by police at the bridge. That night, in downtown Selma, Jim Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, was beaten to death by three white men who never have been convicted. King immediately issued a passionate nationwide call for clergy to come to Selma. His obvious thought was that the press back home was more likely to pay attention if people were worrying about their ministers.
That night, I decided I needed to go, partly because I had met and visited with King the evening we both received graduate degrees from Chicago Theological Seminary. I also had joined him for the 1963 March on Washington. I thought he was an authentic witness for the Holy in God’s world. I had to go. For the rest of the week I told no one in the church other than my wife what I was going to do. Following worship that Sunday, I announced that I was leaving in two hours for Selma. A voice in the room cried out ominously, “My God, Robb, you could be shot!”
As it turned out, there were sixteen other brave souls who rendezvoused in east Denver early that Sunday afternoon, the 14th, after several of us had led worship in the churches we served.
We drove 3 cars straight through to Selma, arriving mid-day on Tuesday. My car pulled a trailer loaded with food and clothing I had gathered for besieged black Selma families. It was a very dicey drive, as the further we got, the more closely we were followed by police cars whose officers’ rifles were visible. In a Kentucky town I was so busy watching a very close police car in my rearview mirror that I went through a red light. I was sure I was fried, but we were not stopped. The officers apparently were glad to get us through their town without incident. My apprehension grew.
Our next sense of the trouble ahead in Selma mounted in a restaurant in Tennessee on Monday night. As the seventeen of us, a mixed-race group of both men and women, entered the main dining room, the other patrons, all white, got up, left their dinners and stood staring at us through the lobby doorway. We were the only diners left in this large room. After having ordered our meals, I noticed through a large window that there was a full string of cars, some of them with stars painted on their doors, circling past the restaurant window. Then I realized that the black minister sitting across from me, back to the window and next to a white woman, wasn’t eating his dinner. When I looked into his eyes, he said, almost whispering, “You’re white, Robb. I could be shot in the back.” I don’t think any of us digested that meal. I also don’t remember ever eating in Selma.
The next morning as we approached the north edge of Selma, I was shocked to see more than 250 state highway patrol cars, STATE patrol cars! It quickly became obvious that the officers were not there to protect us outsiders!
Upon our arrival at Brown Chapel, the protest headquarters, all seventeen of us were told we could sleep at the home of a black woman in town, for whom having whites in her house was obviously a new experience. Floor was bed for most of us, and we were grateful. Her house felt like a safe haven in a climate of hate.
After choosing spaces on her floors, we went back to Brown Chapel for our evening assignments. Hosea Williams, King’s chief field lieutenant, was speaking to a disparate group of ministers. He was firing up the small crowd to instill courage for that night’s work. He singled out a group of white ministers, among whom were three of us from Colorado. He told us, “You need to stay here at Brown Chapel, since the center of tonight’s action in all of Loundes County is right outside our front door. Your job will be to stand along the curb facing the armed police, keeping the entire crowd of protesters from stepping into the street. There will be about 100 of you. You may be here all night.” Williams then told us, “The patrol commander has sent us word that anyone stepping or falling off the curb into the street will be shot.”
We white ministers went out to the street in front of Brown Chapel. We talked among ourselves about how best to protect the milling crowd. One could not avoid the sight of the shoulder to shoulder row of city police and state patrolmen, all armed, some with rifles, facing us right across the city street. I had never seen anything like this, nor had I ever been the object of contempt of so many armed officers. I simply couldn’t believe that public servants, especially those employed by a state of the United States of America, could get away with this kind of behavior. But there they were!
I said to the group near me, “It looks like we should lock arms and stand with our backs to the milling crowd, facing the cops. This may keep people from stepping or being pushed past us into the street.”
So, we lined up on the curb, locked arms, and faced the officers. Talk about holding ones breath while being bumped and jostled from behind! I shuddered at the look in the eyes of the guy who clearly had me in his gun’s sight. I was nearly knocked into the street three different times. Interestingly, we ministers had very little to say to one another along the line, even though each of us depended on the men on either side to hold us tightly. I can still feel in my gut both the anxiety and human sadness of this situation. The cops were playing with us, tauntingly. That night, I got a very ugly taste of what it means to be black in America.
That same night, no one, including King, knew whether or when another attempt to march to Montgomery would occur. While they continued to strategize, on both Wednesday and Thursday I traveled with a small team into the back woods of Loundes County to go from dilapidated shack to dilapidated shack to encourage black adults to go with us to the Court House to attempt to register to vote. No one agreed to go with us to the Court House. Fear is a very strong driver!
On Wednesday night, four of us, men and women, were invited to attend a prayer meeting with some of the rural black-Americans whom we had met that day. One of them led us to a tar paper shack deep in the woods where others already were waiting. It was a flimsy and dark structure. We could barely see one another even though several people had brought candles or flashlights. One could see out through cracks where the tar paper had separated. It grew very dark outside. I suggested we start by going around the room to share stories of our life commitments and struggles. The words from both visitors and residents were candid, heartfelt, and very moving. This sharing, like joys and concerns praying here, united us in human togetherness as God’s children facing a common evil. Suddenly, through one of the cracks of this highly inflammable structure we could see a torch moving past. Then another, and another, until we were being encircled, I’m certain, with the intent of setting the shack on fire, so as to either burn us all to death or to frighten us into exiting so we could be beaten. We talked together about what we should do. Rather than run out in panic, I urged the group to sit quietly, not flinching, sharing prayers for our pursuers. We kept talking and praying until these mobsters slunk home. Whew!
Something else happened later that night. As various ones of us got back to the house where we were staying, we seventeen shared stories of our various activities of the day as we sat on the floor in the cramped living room. I grew cold. So, I excused myself and went out to my car for a sweater. As I started to open my rear door, I realized there was a car, its motor running, sitting under a street-light up at the corner, about three doors away. I could see three or four white men in it, and they all were watching me. Then I saw the glint of a rifle barrel as it was being leveled toward me. As I flipped over the hedge in front of the house, I heard a gunshot and a bullet as it hit the tree behind where I had just been standing. Back in the house, I could not speak. I was beginning to understand the cruelty of the racism that was, and still is, indigenous in the American culture, nationally, not just in the South. Such a helpless feeling!
We left Selma on Friday morning. I got to Arvada well after dark on Saturday night, and had to lead worship the next morning without a preparing a sermon or bulletin! Following the service, I learned that King had just successfully led a very large group across the Pettus bridge and was heading to Montgomery. Risking their lives, folks from around the country had made the difference.
I was not ever to see King in person again. However, two years later, in large part in response to the power of his vision and to his work to end economic and geographic discrimination in housing, I became the organizing executive director of the Metro Denver Fair Housing Center, perhaps the most difficult and underappreciated job I ever have been assigned by God. We were able to permanently change the narrative of segregation and to improve the quality of housing available to black folks in metro Denver, making it far less ghettoized than most large American cities. I wasn’t shot for that work. But, with three little children to feed, I was fired, essentially for confronting the status quo.
When King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, I felt deeply the shock of a Christian who suddenly is reminded again of the theological paradox of how the collective sins of some people become a societal evil in a world in which the Holy loves all people. King was driven by the same call as that Man from Nazareth who had lost his life confronting societal illnesses.
Bottom line: Christian discipleship – following Jesus - is not about assembling correct beliefs. Christian discipleship is about doing loving acts, especially where ordinary people are being diminished and impoverished by the powerful. One cannot simply speak against injustice in broad theoretical terms. Living for the world that could be focuses us on facing real, concrete, pithy, everyday injustices that arise because so many humans so selfishly worry more about themselves than about others. The good news is that there is still time to turn the world around!