This weekend, thousands from across the United States and around the world will gather in Alabama for the 50thanniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Along with civil rights activists, elected officials and faith leaders, some of our ELCA churchwide staff and young adult leaders will travel from various parts of the country to attend events.
Today, we share with you some reflections from these ELCA leaders as they prepare to make the journey to Selma, including why they feel called to attend and what they hope to gain from this experience:
Nathaniel Viets-VanLear, Chicago:
“Selma becomes important not as an observation of a moment in history but as a reminder that the past and present are only two parts of a continuum. Already steeped in the Black-lives-matter movement in Chicago, I travel to Selma to offer testament to the fact that a movement began long before I arrived on this earth, through the work of many young men and women before me. I want these streets, these structures, this history to flow through me as I walk through Selma, acting as a life-giving force that can only add more furor to all of the work that needs to be done. Like an empty cup, I plan to go to Selma ready to be as filled as possible. Growth is my only expectation. My biggest task will be opening my ears and mind to the lives and experiences of my elders past and present. I hope to be corrected, refined, and further ingrained as a leader toward positive change in our shared community.”
Jackie Maddox, Washington, D.C.:
“I am attending for those who stood 50 years ago and were knocked down, beaten and humiliated because they wanted the right to have a voice. Those who were denied but never gave up. Fifty years later I want to stand for the people, including my parents, who struggled for me and are the reason why I and many others can vote today. Although the events that led up to having a right to vote were horrific, I will feel privileged to be among people who fought for justice and won.”
Ryan Martin-Yates, Oklahoma City, Okla.:
“This trip is an important moment in time for me. I’ve grown up always oriented toward seeking justice, but only recently have I found the bravery to use my voice in that. This past year has been a year of growth that has been facilitated by what has gone on in this country and how those events began to affect my daily life. I currently live in Oklahoma, a place dealing with underlying racial prejudice that’s perpetuated by places of faith, and I soon realized it was time for me to step up and use my voice. Once I began to see a lack of empathy for people who were hurting, I knew I could no longer be submissive. I’ve been walking alongside fellow people of color here at the university who are seeking more from our school in the way of dialogue about race. I belong to a family whose struggle to survive in this country is directly tied to systematic injustice against people of color, and I’m not OK with that anymore. For me, this weekend is a moment to reflect on a powerful moment in our country’s history and to engage in dialogue about how the fight for justice is to keep moving 50 years later.
Mark Carlson, Sacramento, Calif.:
“I went to the 40th anniversary of Selma in 2005 to honor my father, a Lutheran pastor and voice for racial justice, who was not able to march in 1965 as he hoped; as well as for his clergy colleagues who did. Fascinated by the extraordinary courage of so many who were dehumanized and the objects of terror and violence, another pilgrimage was just something I had to do. I returned for the 45th and am going again to learn, to listen, to walk, worship, sing, and to be nourished and inspired as I remember the sacrifices and recommit to resist racism and violence. This time it is more personal. My mother, Rosemary, who is now in her last days under hospice care, asked me if I had been to Selma while we were watching the Oscars performance of “Glory” from the movie “Selma.” Since my 2010 trip, I learned that her great-grandfather and his brother, who served in the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, had been in Montgomery and Selma 150 years ago, mustering out in nearby Demopolis in 1865. I also continue to wonder why we are not in a better place with race relations, poverty, violence, the criminal justice system, voting rights and voter participation, after my ancestors went through hell, as did those who endured and gave so much those 50 years ago. Selma 2015 will point the way to a better place, with God’s help.”
Natalie Young, Chicago:
“This trip is important to me as a person of color whose father grew up in the south (Mississippi) during the civil rights movement. I am 30 years old and identify as multiethnic and am always baffled when my peers do not show up at the polls and vote! I think that people in my generation and younger sometimes forget the struggle that our elders went through so that we could live the way we do today. I saw the movie “Selma” with my family and was reminded how recently these events occurred in our history. The film gave a certain humanness to the iconic civil rights leaders that we learned about in school and made me realize that great leaders have to start somewhere!”
Judith Roberts, Chicago:
“My grandfather, CC Bryant of McComb, Miss., testified before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in February 1965. His testimony, along with several others, named the racial discrimination and intimidation experienced by African Americans trying to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Today, we are still facing voter disenfranchisement through public policies in the form of preserving state’s rights (e.g. voter ID legislation and the criminal justice system that can temporarily or permanently deny access to the ballot). This moment in our current history is about lifting up the values of living in an electoral democracy – where every citizen should have the right to cast a ballot for the elected officials that will represent their communities. This church adopted a social statement policy to ensure just that.”
We pray for our ELCA leaders and all those who gather in Selma this weekend. We will continue to bring photos and stories from the events, as well as reflections after the anniversary celebration.