Guest Post by Peter Heltzel
U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was my High School anthem in Mississippi in 1984. Playing it loud at pep rallies, it incited our school spirit, but there was something revelatory about the song; it unveiled a dark undertow of human discord and suffering that we could relate to, especially my African American friends. With the driving momentum of a military march, Bono’s clarion call protested British troops shooting 26 unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland on January 30, 1972. America’s Bloody Sunday was in the deep South, down in Selma, Alabama on Sunday March 7, 1965, when hundreds of men and women, black and white, walked resolutely over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to meet a phalanx of Alabama State Police and Selma law enforcement under the command of Sheriff James Clark.
In a storm cloud of tear gas, the marchers were brutally beaten back with billy clubs. A man bashed in the head, a woman thrown to the pavement, black bodies strewn across the bridge, the blood of the martyrs flowed into the Alabama River crying out about racial injustice in the South. Named after Senator Edmund Winston Pettus, a former Confederate Brigadier General and Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK, the Pettus Bridge traversed the chasm of our country’s racial divide. Courageous and committed mother Viola Lee led the march for her son Jimmie Lee Johnson, murdered by Officer James Bonard Fowler while participating in a peaceful voting rights march, unarmed, in Marion, Alabama on February 18, 1965. Viola wanted to march her son’s brutalized body to the State Capital in Montgomery to awaken the conscience of the nation, but James Bevel, Director of the SCLC Selma Voting Rights Campaign, persuaded her that focusing the march on Voting Rights would be more strategic.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the march in Selma, joined by a growing group of student activists like my colleague Rev. Eleanor Moody-Shepherd, an African American student at Alabama State University, who joined the 5 day, 54 mile march down Route 80 to Montgomery. The march inspired President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, and while we celebrate that legislative victory, the work of justice and the fight to register people of color to vote continues.
The first week of April I take our New York Theological Seminary students down to Selma for an intensive course called “Going Home: Southern Religion and the Civil Rights Movement.” We walk the freedom trails from pain to promise—together, seeking to bridge the black-white divide. I’m always shocked at Selma’s Voting Rights Museum by a video of Sheriff James Clark who, when asked if he had any regrets about the police brutality of that bloody day, shows no remorse, stating he was following the laws of the Constitution of Alabama to use force when necessary to subdue the citizenry. Like many white people, Sheriff Clark simply does not get it. Race matters in America. In 2014 at least 56 unarmed black people were killed by police officers, more than all the other races combined.
As an anti-racist/pro-reconciliation Minister in New York City from Vicksburg, Mississippi, I renounce the sin of racism, committing myself to following black leadership in the #blacklivesmatter movement as we continue to advocate for legislation to end racial profiling, demilitarize our police and establish a real living wage for all. While violence begets violence, Dr. King argues, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” Given the racial strife in America, we need the strength to love as we struggle for justice and strive for reconciliation. “Early morning, April four, Shot rings out in the Memphis sky, Free at last, they took your life, They could not take your pride,” sings Bono in another U2 classic “In the Name of Love.” From Selma to Syria, Derry to Donbass, a growing group of ordinary citizens are rising up in the name of love to end the violence. We will keep meeting. We will keep marching. We will keep moving until we see “justice roll like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).