Civil Rights Movement
I grew up in a household run by a woman of the civil rights movement. My mother, born Sharon Lawrence in 1948, was a teenager when she joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966, one year after Dr. King’s legendary march from Selma to Montgomery and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With the foundations of progress and protection laid, there was still much work to be done. My mother was based in Philadelphia, where she helped establish one of SNCC’s embattled northern offices.
A few years back, as I fished through boxes brimming with old papers and notepads, I discovered handwritten notes from James Forman to my mother. Forman offered detailed instruction to the then 18-year-old young woman who would become my mother only a few years later. Her job was much like mine is now: church outreach. The way she tells it, there were only a few churches in Philadelphia willing to offer their pulpits for movement people to speak. It was her job to secure those pulpits when giants like Forman, Stokely Carmichael, and others came to town.
I grew up aware of the women of the civil rights movement — my mother was one of them.
Perhaps that’s why I was so struck by the rare effort made by the film Selma to highlight the roles of women in that struggle, which by many accounts was the high-water mark of the civil rights movement.
Just as Selma opened in wide-release I began to receive requests for advice on how to lead churches and faith communities through discussions of the film. Years ago, I used to lead these kinds of dialogues in my capacity as the Greater Los Angeles director of racial reconciliation for a college-based parachurch ministry. Some of our most fruitful conversations came after we saw films like Selma or read a book together or had a common experience of racial injustice that we needed to process.
The film Selma is an incredibly helpful dialogue centerpiece at the moment. But like all things, other dialogue opportunities will rise and take center stage in the coming weeks and months. Other films will be released, helpful books will be published, and public events will provoke us to need to dialogue again. When those opportunities surface, I recommend using the format below as a template for similar dialogues moving forward. I’ve collected my Top 5 recommended resources to help guide your community dialogue on racial justice and Selma.
“I do know the voice of God.”
That’s what David Oyelowo, the actor who beautifully portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the new film Selma, told me last night. It’s that voice, he said, that called him to play the role.
I was at the December preview of Selma in Washington, D.C., and then took my family to see it at an early showing on Christmas day. I sometimes respond emotionally to films, but Selma made we weep. It also made me grateful that for the first time in 50 years, a big studio had finally made a film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the people in the movement around him in Selma. I believe this movie, unlike most others, could actually change the nation’s conversation about race and reconciliation at a crucial time, perhaps even providentially.
On the premiere night, I met David Oyelowo, who spoke publically after the film about his faith. I don’t hear that kind of talk very much in D.C., but David was open and forthright, saying that playing the great Christian leader became part of his personal calling as a Christian.
In our conversation afterward, I asked David what he meant by those words. His answer prompted me to ask for an interview with him before the film, which debuts this weekend, came out. He and I talked last night (listen to the full interview below).
In the first moments of Selma, I feel butterflies rise in my stomach as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) practices his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech while trying to tie his ascot. Butterflies rumble in my soul. I am almost fearful as we step into the world of Selma, because I am a student of the Civil Rights era. The movement’s lessons have shaped my life. I feel like I am about to meet my heroes.
So, King fiddles with his ascot in Oslo, Norway, and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) comes close to comfort him, and little girls descend into the bowels of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and butterflies rise and my soul sits at attention. I know what is coming: hell … and glory.
The film still haunts me. Every performance is nuanced, textured, and humanizing. Director Ava DuVernay’s technique is breathtaking. Her eye translates words into feelings into images — moving images that never leave you. Brutality and reverence occupy single frames. At once, the audience is horrified and awe-struck. I have no doubt Selma should win Oscars.
It is an amazing film, but it doesn’t haunt me because of its excellence. As I sat in the dark watching the movement unfold before my eyes, it was not the past that haunted me. It was the present.
“Get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity.” –1 Timothy 4:12 (The Message)
In our recent book Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong-Chan Rah, and I call the American church to a posture of repentance due to all the times we have not only been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of God.
As an organizer and director of the AMOS Project in Cincinnati, I’ve discovered that a humble spirit of repentance is critical to powerful work around racial and economic justice. There can be a strong temptation to replay colonialism by having all the answers and believing we are God’s gift to the oppressed. We white evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this arrogant path. Humility and a repentant spirit are key to a healthy engagement and partnership in our work.
Dr. King said: a “riot is the language of the unheard.”
What happens when folks do not feel like their voices are being heard?
They shout louder.
Rioting is what almost happened in Ferguson, and all of us who live in fragile neighborhoods with a backdrop of deep racial injustice need to pay attention.
In Ferguson, a close-knit community was devastated by yet another injustice. They wanted to be heard. But as peaceful marches began, they were met with unprecedented force.
Tears were met with teargas.
It was as if authorities were putting their hands up over their ears. So the people shouted louder – and the world began to pay attention.
At a fragile moment when emotions were running high, the people of Ferguson had to choose between rioting and nonviolent direct action in the streets. A very small group (many of them arguably out-of-state activists) resorted to some forms of property damage. And it caught the media’s attention.
Some might say it hijacked the headlines.
But that is not how I will remember Ferguson.
When I heard the news I wept.
“Renowned Poet and Author Maya Angelou Dies at 86,” read the NBC News headline.
My fruitless effort to hold back tears was proven vain as I made my way into the bowels of a D.C. Metro station — tears streaming. I felt silly.
“Why am I crying,” I thought. “I didn’t know Maya Angelou.” I met her once, but she wasn’t family or a close friend, yet I was reacting with the same profound sense of loss, as if my own beloved great grandmother had passed?
The New York Times called her a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South” in the headline that announced Ms. Angelou’s death this morning. But for nearly four decades Dr. Maya Angelou served as a kind of great grandmother of the African-American community — a bridge between the ancestors and us.