Friday, February 1, 2008

Remembering Selma, '65

2 Sunday A #64

Is 49, 3. 5-6
Ps 40
1 Cor 1, 1-3
Jn 1, 29-34

Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
January 20, 2008

In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist proclaims Jesus the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1, 29). Lamb of God, one of Jesus’ titles. Jesus has many titles, each tells a tale, Christ, Redeemer, Son of God. Jesus is not just a son of God but the Son of God, the only begotten Son of God, the revelation of God the Father. Today we fix our attention on Jesus the Lamb of God, as John directs us. The lamb is a symbol of innocence. The innocent lamb led to the slaughter is a symbol of unmerited suffering. Unmerited suffering, willingly accepted, is redemptive. That is how the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King explained the dynamic of the Civil Rights Movement, which came to its climax in Selma, Alabama, in March, 1965. Unmerited suffering willingly accepted. Monsignor Dugan was there. So was I. We would not meet for another fourteen years, but when we did, Father Dugan and I, we acknowledged that that time was a highpoint in our lives, something precious that we shared, a bond as of a Band of Brother and Sisters who put our lives on the line.

Forty-three years ago! Is it possible? Today a black man has a shot at the presidency. We could not imagine it back then, when Americans, black and white, scores of them, lay down their lives just so black people could vote. Sometimes, even when I am alone and writing about those times, tears flow down my face and I choke on sobs. I don’t know why. When I talk about them at schools and colleges I have to keep my emotions in check, so bear with me if my voice cracks. Andy Young was my boss down there. I was one of his marshals. Andy went on from the Movement to the United States House of Representatives and then to the United Nations as U.S. Ambassador. I worked with him there too, in the Congress and at the U.N. I saw him on TV not long ago, talking about The Days, Selma, ’65. To wind up, the interviewer, asked him, “Do you think about those days often?” He answered, “No, not often, always, all the time!” Then he broke down and sobbed, right on screen. That made me feel better.

Fast forward to Iraq, 2003, the lobby of the Al Fanar Hotel in Baghdad and a few Americans sipping sweet tea in the lobby. Somehow Selma came up. “I was there,” said a lady from Colorado. “So was I,” I told her. “Do you remember Leroy, Leroy Moton?” I asked her. Leroy was my first friend there. I often thought of him, a nineteen year old kid, about six feet seven inches tall, lanky, very dark and full of nervous energy. Leroy showed me around town and helped me to settle in. Then he went on to lead the singing as we sat night and day under sun and rain for ten days in front of Brown’s Chapel. When the police lifted the barricades and the great march made it to and returned from Montgomery, when it was all over, Leroy helped a white woman from Detroit drive people to the airport and to the bus and train stations to return to their homes up North. Her name was Viola Liuzzo, wife of a union organizer and mother of a family. Maybe some of you remember. When we got home we heard on the news that four white men in a car menaced Mrs. Liuzzo when they saw a black youth sitting next to her in her Olds, and drove into her rear bumper. Then they gave chase, at over 80 miles per hour on a state highway. They drew alongside Mrs. Liuzzo’s car and shot her in the head. She died instantly. Leroy survived somehow. It turned out that one of the men in the car was an FBI plant who had infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. He testified against the Ku Kluxers at a state trial for murder, but an all white jury refused to convict. The killers were then tried in federal court for violation of civil rights. There they were convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Three years for murder!

“I wonder what happened to Leroy after all he went through,” I told my new friend in Baghdad. “I’d love to find him, see how he did in life. If if he’s in need, well, we have a farm in Marlboro....” My friend was still in touch with some people in Alabama. She gave me a clue, and the long and the short of it is: I found Leroy in Connecticut. He’s in his sixties now, retired on disability income, bent over from an industrial accident but still six feet seven if you could straighten him out. He has had a hard but a good life as a factory worker and he has a son now in high school in Hartford. Leroy shares his story with young people in schools and churches, as I’m sharing it with you today, to show just how unmerited suffering, willingly accepted, is redemptive. We didn’t just win the vote, we bought back America’s soul! That’s what redemption means, a buying back, at a price. We did it, black and white, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox and Jew and Muslim together, and maybe an agnostic or two. We won the vote and we tore down the legal structures of racial segregation. The institutional framework for this great movement was the black Protestant church, but at the March to Montgomery, you could see a swarm of Catholic nuns in habit and priests in Roman collars, more then any identifiable group.

These days we are celebrating the Church Unity Octave, praying for, and working for the restoration of Christian unity, one church that will be truly catholic, truly orthodox, truly evangelical and truly reformed. We are already one, Saint Paul tells us over and over again, for there is but “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4,5). So, what we can do together, we must do together. We can pray together. We can study together. But the best way to achieve the unity that Jesus prayed the Father for his church is to struggle for peace and justice together in his name, in his way, even at a price. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has paid the price of our sin, once and for all. We are in Christ. If in baptism we died in Christ, and if in baptism we rose with Christ, then in baptism we share his saving mission too. It’s still going on, and it’s up to you. Redemption does not come on the cheap.

The night before Martin King was assassinated, Andy got him up out of a sickbed in a motel in Memphis. A large congregation was waiting in a church to hear him speak. He looked haggard and dispirited at first. But after a few minutes the Spirit caught him. His voice rang, he spoke as if he knew what was coming the next day. “Like anybody, I’d like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Martin King was surely a lamb of God. I never heard of a wolf of God. 

No comments: