Imagine yourself in a crowded sanctuary — not just crowded, packed. Every pew filled, hip to hip, the balcony overflowing, the walls lined with those hardy souls who are willing to stand. Even the front surrounding the pulpit is full of people — choir members, ensemble singers, accompanists, directors, esteemed speakers, even a couple men in suits who look like they might be bodyguards. There are so many people that even the band is hidden amongst bodies, the drum set obscured, the guitarist just one among many. Then add the television crews, the photographers, the journalists, gathered like a flock of birds at the far back near the doors. The room is bursting with energy and anticipation.
It’s the anniversary memorial service for the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, fifty years after our honored friends were killed by the very violence they were protesting. We are gathered at the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, a blend of faiths and faces, packed together and singing for all we’re worth.
There — filling the fourth row — is the entire extended family of Rev. James (Jim) Reeb. And over there, gathered in a clump up front, is the family of Jimmie Lee Jackson. And there — that’s the family of Viola Liuzzo. Up there, behind the pulpit — that’s MLK’s daughter.
Some of us knew these names when they were etched on our hearts in 1965. Others of us read them in history books, the names standing out in stark bold font. And some learned the names only recently, sitting in the audience of a movie theater as the drama unfolded on screen.
But those names are real tonight. The families of the martyrs are here.
Led by a musical ensemble of Civil Rights veterans — the Freedom Singers — we eulogize the dead in a haunting melody, singing and weeping and swaying in our seats, with words that go something like this:
Have you seen dear Jimmie?
He was doing the work at my side.
The good always die too young.
So have you seen my friend?
I looked around, and he was gone.
We sing verses for James Reeb, and for Viola Liuzzo, and for Malcom X and Martin Luther King, and for others who died violently during peaceful protest.
How do we mourn those deaths? We celebrate their lives. And we are reminded, as we rub shoulders and breathe together and clap and sway and weep, that while we, as a country, were galvanized in 1965 by those acts of horror and brutality, the success of our movement today rests on the shoulders of those who lived on.
Dr. Bernice A. King — a brilliant, fiery speaker, and the daughter of MLK — reminds us of that, there in that crowded sanctuary. We have to look back, she tells us, if we ever hope to move forward. We have to look back to remember the stories, to learn from the people, to harness our courage. And then, together, we can march in the arc of justice to build the promised land.
Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor whose impassioned preaching inspired President Obama when he was in Chicago doing his grassroots organizing, takes the pulpit next. Look at our history, he says. Through all of it, black bodies matter, and sometimes black deaths matter, but black lives? Black lives have never mattered. And that’s what we have to stand up and change today. Black lives matter — because yes, all lives matter — and that’s all that matters!
The crowd cheers and applauds our speakers, calling out encouragement in true Baptist style. Our evening is running late, with so many spirit-filled messengers here to speak with us tonight, but the crowd is still expectant, the pews still packed, the walls still lined with people.
Rev. Dr. William Barber — leader of the Moral Monday movement, who sent out his own calls to come to Raleigh, North Carolina for a Mass Moral March — ascends the pulpit.
He’s an imposing presence, and a full-bodied, powerful preacher. He commands us to listen to the blood of the martyrs, because it will speak to us. We live in a time now when the Voting Rights Act from 1965 has been gutted. We get complacent, but we can’t be satisfied with crumbs when we used to have the whole loaf — the very blood of the martyrs cries out against it!
It’s late, and we’ve been worshipping together for three hours into the night, but we sing once again, and we hold hands, and we pray, and we bolster ourselves with one another’s presence before we had out again into the cold night.
The warmth of our blended community is what sustains us, and the vision of that promised land is what calls us forward into action.
What is the blood of the martyrs calling us to do?
What is it calling you to do?
What is your vision? What can we can do together as we march in the arc of justice toward that freedom land — as beloved companions, as people whose lives matter, as humble equals in the struggle?
So may it be, friends, and amen.
[Note: Photos are having difficulty loading; I hope to add them later as an edit.]