Civil Rights Trail

Paying Homage in Selma: Unitarian Universalist Civil Rights Martyrs

Speechless (or wordless) doesn’t work particularly well for poets or blogs.

A blog is not Instagram where you convey primarily (often solely) through images. A blog is not TikTok with its minute-long videos, though I suppose it could be, but just a poor imitation.

Generally speaking, a blog requires words. Particularly if it is written by someone who considers herself, on and off again, a poet. Particularly if it is written by a minister whose Unitarian Universalist faith has a well-earned reputation for over-attachment of the written word.

Rev. Karen in front of a mural in Selma, Alabama. This section of the mural depicts Rev. Reeb and Viola Liuzzo

While at the moment I feel it to be more of an effort (an important one) than an ease to find the right-enough words to narrate this journey, I think that I did find right-enough words at the right time when I was in Selma, Alabama, and then just outside of Selma on the way back to Montgomery, yesterday.

At least when it came to honoring the two Unitarian Universalist martyrs whose lives were stolen by white racists after they heeded Dr. King’s call to the nation to come be a part of the struggle for voting rights in the spring of 1964. The rest of the visit to Selma is still in process.

Here are two videos of my paying homage to two of my religious and spiritual ancestors, first Viola Liuzzo, who is not commonly described as Unitarian Universalist (so I was glad to see this descriptor was included at the memorial site) and then Reverend James Reeb.

May the words of my mouth

and the meditations of my heart

be acceptable.

Reverend Karen G. Johnston paying homage to slain civil rights worker, Viola Liuzzo.
Reverend Karen G. Johnston paying homage to civil rights martyr, Reverend James Reeb.

You can learn more about Reverend James Reeb and his murder through the 2019 NPR podcast, White Lies, created by Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace. I once preached using this podcast as my sacred text. In preparation for my visit to Selma, I re-listened to it. It was, and is, a powerful, compelling, and stellar podcast.

Side note: one of several delightful things during my visit to Selma was that while I was in the half-closed National Park site, exploring the gift shop (the only part that was open), someone else walked in. My back was to the door so I couldn’t see, but I heard the voice and immediately knew.

I eavesdropped for as long as was polite; then screwed up my courage to be more bold than was polite. I asked her name and she confirmed: she was Ms. JoAnne Bland, the woman who acted as tour guide and interpreter of Selma for the podcasters. Ms. Brand had taken part in Bloody Sunday.

Ms. Bland is a national treasurer. And there she was, with her clear, booming voice and an in-person presence that was just as powerful. I was so blessed to be able to speak briefly with her, to share my appreciation for her efforts, her presence, and her persistence. Here’s a photo of her with the late John Lewis.

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