Sunday, January 18, 2009

Martin Walked So Barack Could Run

Martin Walked So Barack Could Run
A sermon given 1-18-2009


November 14, 1960, three little black girls walked past a screaming, taunting mob to enter New Orleans’ McDonogh Elementary School, to integrate it.

This Tuesday, two little black girls will walk into a house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They will probably be holding the hands of their father …

The President of the United States of America.

49 years.

Today, I am proud to be an American. No matter how we voted, we should be proud of this moment, not only as Americans, but as Unitarian Universalists. This is a moment that we were significantly involved in making a possibility.

Though we have struggled and fought over how to do it, when to do it, achieving equal rights for all is ingrained in our religion and acted upon by our members. People like Mary White Ovington, co-founder of the NAACP, and a Unitarian. Or the approximately 100 UU ministers who answered Martin Luther King’s call to march from Selma to Montgomery for Voting Rights. One of those ministers was Rev. James Reeb who was fatally beaten there. Or the hundred more Unitarian Universalist laypeople who came to march.

One of those was Viola Liuzzo … she was a mom of 5, 38 years old, who had recently gone back to school. She drove from Detroit to Selma. After the completed march, she began ferrying marchers back to Selma from Montgomery. On one of these trips, they passed a car with burned out taillights. Viola saw the African-Americans inside and said, “These are our people.” She instructed her passengers to roll down their windows as they passed, to let them know about the taillights.

After dropping off most of her passengers and heading back to get more, a car came upon hers. The occupants saw her out-of-state plates and the black passenger sitting by her and guessed why she was there. They rolled down their windows --

And shot her point blank, killing her instantly.

People have died for this day.

Turn to someone right now and say, “We honor them.”

Born the year after Martin Luther King died, I do not remember the news stories about James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. But I will not forget.

People have marched, worked, lived and died for this. It is good for us to take pride in the part of our religious heritage that helped this to happen, but what walks hand in hand with this pride is a responsibility to continue the progress. Our first principle is that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people – all people – and in the words of Dr. King, “we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

The deaths of Rev. Reeb and Mrs. Liuzzo led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is a sad fact that it took the deaths of people with white skin to spur public outrage in a way that the deaths of people like Rev. George Washington Lee and Jimmy Lee Jackson, both African-American, had not.

Some say that because we have elected an African-American man president, that proves that we are now post-racial, racism is dead, long live the King. But this is another Mission Accomplished banner that’s simply too early.

The election of the first black president that fills so many of us with such pride and hope is also bringing racism and hatred out of the shadows. Because where we have hope in our hearts, others have fear. And fear can very easily turn to hatred. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that election of the first black president triggered more than 200 hate-related incidents. Obama himself has received far more death threats than any other president-elect, ever. And conservative estimates peg the increase in hate-groups at 40% since 2000.

The theory is that when people feel powerless about something they can’t do, they look around for what they can. It’s an insidious version of think globally, act locally. They can’t hurt Obama, so they look around for someone they can hurt … someone who looks like Obama.


But many will continue to say, “We’re there. We have achieved a fair and just society.” Indeed, the Voting Rights Act that was bought with blood, heads to the Supreme Court this April. Opponents of it say that election of Obama proves that there is no more need to protect the voting rights of our citizens.

Well, I just know about a friend of mine in Arkansas, who volunteered this year to help with voter registration. She called the county clerk’s office to request some voters’ registration cards that were in Spanish and was told, “You have to be able to speak English in order to vote.”

I do not remember African-Americans being given “citizenship tests” before they could register to vote … but I will not forget.


So many things work together to make Change happen. It was Rosa sitting and Martin walking. But it was also a multicultural Sesame Street and a very normal Cosby family. It was musicians and actors. It was companies and universities that simply wanted the best and the brightest. It was people willing to give a hand-up to those who did not have their same advantages. Scholarship programs. Churches who said it is wrong to discriminate and laws that said it is illegal. The world changed.

Continuing the progress in the face of people scared of change, worried about their jobs and afraid someone else is going to get their piece of the pie – and we may share those fears -- will take all of our heart, soul and strength. Moving forward, it will be necessary for us to march again, this time, not with picket signs, but with shovels, canned goods, and our intellect. In 1994, Congress designated that MLK day be a day of service. Tomorrow, the Obama family is making good on that promise. They will spend the day serving others and are encouraging the rest of the country to do likewise.

What can you do in one day? You can:

Clean a park, clean downtown, clean the 3rd ward, clean a highway, clean a community playground. You can sort food at a food bank, sort merchandise at a charity thrift store, drop off canned goods, paint a mural, clean up from painting a mural, repair and recondition donated bicycles, donate blood, donate platelets, donate toiletries, donate money, donate gently used household goods to those in Galveston still trying to recover from Hurricane Ike. You can assemble sandwiches for the homeless, feed the hungry, feed and entertain kids ages 5-14. You can help build a clubhouse.

All of these opportunities can be found by going to: usaservice.org – put in your zip code, and a giant list of opportunities will present themselves. If you’ve got kids at home, there are things you can do with your kids. If you have to work, then give some blood during your lunch hour, or stop at the grocery store on the way home, load up a basket with canned goods, and drop it off in one of those barrels by the front door.

Do something. “These are our people.”

Inherent worth and dignity of every person genuinely means every person. Your neighbor next door, the person next to you in the grocery store, the man you pass sleeping under the bridge. These are our people. It even means the people who do not agree with us.

As far as I know, Melissa Etheridge is not a Unitarian Universalist, but I think she’d feel right at home in one of our churches. I was profoundly moved by an essay she wrote about Rick Warren. Right after it hit the news that Warren had been selected to give the Invocation at Obama’s inauguration, Etheridge was scheduled to sing for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. She writes:

I received a call the day before to inform me of the keynote speaker that night... Pastor Rick Warren. I was stunned. My fight or flight instinct took over, should I cancel? Then a calm voice inside me said, "Are you really about peace or not?"

I told my manager to reach out to Pastor Warren and say "In the spirit of unity I would like to talk to him." On the day of the conference I received a call from Pastor Rick, and before I could say anything, he told me what a fan he was. He had most of my albums from the very first one. What? This didn't sound like a gay hater. He explained in very thoughtful words that as a Christian he believed in equal rights for everyone. He believed every loving relationship should have equal protection. He struggled with proposition 8 because he didn't want to see marriage redefined as anything other than between a man and a woman. He said he regretted his choice of words in his video message to his congregation about proposition 8. He said that in no way, is that how he thought about gays. He invited me to his church, I invited him to my home to meet my wife and kids. He told me of his wife's struggle with breast cancer just a year before mine.

When we met later that night, he entered the room with open arms and an open heart. We agreed to build bridges to the future.

Brothers and sisters the choice is ours now. We have the world's attention. We have the capability to create change, awesome change in this world, but before we change minds we must change hearts. Sure, there are plenty of hateful people who will always hold on to their bigotry like a child to a blanket. But there are also good people out there, Christian and otherwise that are beginning to listen. They don't hate us, they fear change. Maybe in our anger, as we consider marches and boycotts, perhaps we can consider stretching out our hands. Maybe instead of marching on his church, we can show up en masse and volunteer for one of the many organizations affiliated with his church that work for HIV/AIDS causes all around the world.

Maybe if they get to know us, they won’t fear us.

I know, call me a dreamer, but I feel a new era is upon us.

These are our people. Melissa Etheridge and Rick Warren. I actually have hope for Rick Warren. I believe anyone is capable of transformation. Like Billy Graham. In 1952 – 2 years before Brown vs. the Board of Education – he was having a rally in Mississippi. And he went out into the area where the people would be and tore down the ropes that separated the white and black sides. He would not have segregated rallies. And in 1957, he welcomed Martin Luther King onto the platform beside him. So … call me a dreamer, too. I have hope.

I think we should reach out with love – love in our words, love in our service, love in our actions. But we should not retreat from the cause of treating all people with equal fairness and rights. We stood up for civil rights in the 60s and said now is the time. And history has proven us right. And as we stand on the side of love today and say that now is the time for gay couples and lesbian couples to be able to marry, adopt, and pursue happiness with all the according rights and privileges, history will again prove us right.

I do not remember Martin Luther King on the night before he died, vowing that he had seen the promised land. But I will not forget.

Rev. James Reeb was with Rev. Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller when they were attacked in Selma in 1965. In 2002, Olsen and Miller returned to Selma. Olsen said, "Every time you choose to stand for something that's right, enormous good could come from it. Perhaps, something profound, deep and wonderful could happen."

There are many people, some of them here, who do remember listening to Martin Luther King. The universal words, amongst all colors, is what my mother said to me the other night. “I never dreamed I would see this day, a black man becoming president.”

This is a day we do get to see. And I am sure, we will never forget.

3 comments:

MoonMystic said...

This should be required reading for every human being on the planet. You have stated beautifully what we, as UUs and Progressives, have been feeling about this election and about our world. Thank you.

ms. kitty said...

Wow, this is excellent, LE! I'm glad you posted it; I have been thrilled to read it.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for posting this. I set the link to my sons, who were raised UUs, and aren't church-goers, but value the lessons they learned.

It's a wonderful sermon.