How Long? How Long? Race, Poverty, and Religion in Selma Fifty Years Later
How Long? How Long?
Race, Poverty, and Religion in Selma Fifty Years Later
by Rev. Jennifer Bailey
The fellowship hall of Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Selma, Alabama is the heart of communal life for the congregation. Folding chairs and tables lean up against the crisp white walls waiting to be arranged for the next Women’s Missionary Society meeting or community gathering. At its rear is the kitchen, where church mothers toil to prepare food for the milestones of life from weddings to baptisms to funerals. This is where life happens—behind the scenes and outside the ritual glow and ceremony of the sanctuary where preachers exhort and choirs sing.
It was in the fellowship hall that I first met Adriane McIver. Like many African-American families of my grandparent’s generation, Ms. McIver’s parents migrated North in the 1950s in search of good paying factory jobs and freedom from Jim Crow. Settling in Pennsylvania, her father found work at General Electric while her mother taught Early Childhood Education. For 39 years, Ms. McIver had a career as an administrator, first at a water authority and then at a university. It was this work that brought her back to her ancestral homeland, the American South, in 2003 when she settled in Montgomery, Alabama to work for Alabama State University and to pursue her passion for singing. By October 2012, ongoing health problems led her to go on federal disability, and she lost her employer-provided health insurance. Then the waiting began.
For months, Ms. McIver waited for Social Security and Medicare benefits to help cover her medical expenses. As she waited for Medicare coverage, Ms. McIver became increasingly ill. By December 2012, she had lost 30 pounds, could not walk without falling, and regularly had fevers of over 100 degrees. When the pain finally became too much, she went to the emergency room, walking out with an $11,000 bill for a nine-hour visit. Her description of this period of her life pains me. “In my mind,” she said, “I had paid my dues and I expected that the system would now take care of me because I was a productive American who had done it all by the book. Was I ever wrong! It didn’t take long before I was made to feel as if being disabled was a crime.”
Ms. McIver, embodying the spirit of the men and women who organized for their rights and dignity 50 years ago, has become a vocal advocate for Medicaid expansion in the state of Alabama. Echoing the call of the old freedom song, she has come too far to let anyone turn her around.
I walked the labyrinth of Brown Chapel’s sacred halls on my pilgrimage to Brown Chapel in March 2015 as part of the 50th Anniversary commemoration of the Selma marches. I went to pay homage to the ancestors whose tireless efforts laid the foundation for the work I do today as founder of the Faith Matters Network. Our work focuses on organizing faith-rooted social justice organizations across the South to leverage the collective power of the people’s narratives to overturn unjust policies that disproportionately impact the poor. As I passed through the corridors, I reflected upon the ways Ms. McIver’s story, my story, and the stories of all those gathered were part of the living narrative begun by the everyday saints whose images were enshrined on the walls. Each photograph and commemorative plaque gives voice to the movement for racial and economic equality that we continue today.
In 1965, Brown Chapel opened its doors as a base of operations for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as they crafted the strategy for and mobilized engagement in the Selma campaign for voting rights. From the steps of the church, Hosea Williams and John Lewis led 600 people in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the massacre that would become known as Bloody Sunday. Televised images of the march and massacre brought the horrors of racial terrorism into the living rooms of the American public as brutal images of bloodied and severely injured marchers dominated the evening news.
The events in Selma were a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Just eight days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented a bill to a joint session of Congress that would become the basis of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Equally as important as the political victory was the awakening of the American consciousness to the everyday violence inflicted upon black bodies in the South. No longer could American citizens hide behind a veil of ignorance about the subject. The proof was staring back at them on television sets in their own homes.
As a young African-American clergywoman, newly ordained in the A.M.E. Church, I was acutely aware of the significance of the space. I am the fruit of the success so hard-earned by the foot soldiers of the Selma movement and by their counterparts in places like Greensboro, North Carolina and Jackson, Mississippi. Twenty-seven years old, I have not known the humiliation of entering venues through the back entrance nor have I been forced to contend with facilities defined by the myth of “separate but equal.” Yet in a world where it is still controversial to claim #blacklivesmatter, progress must not be confused with victory.
My own story embodies the paradox of African-American progress in the decades following the fall of Jim Crow. By all conventional indicators, I have done well. Raised by two college-educated parents in a middle-class household, I had access to resources and opportunities that would be the envy of many. I went to great schools. I have consistently been able to secure employment. Unlike many of my sisters in ministry, I have been embraced by my faith community and supported through the ordination process.
Despite my success, however, the sting of racism is never far away. The first time I was made to feel less than human because of the color of my skin was on the playground at school. I was five-years-old. On a daily basis, one of my white classmates teased and taunted me, declaring that I must be dirty because my skin was brown. The taunts escalated until one day, at the apex of the bullying, I was called a “nigger” for the first time. As a child, I knew very little about the complex history of race relations in the United States. I did know that I was different and that apparently there was something inherently problematic about my blackness.
Throughout the years, my class privilege has not protected me from the implicit and explicit racial bias I experienced in the contexts I navigated. There were the micro-aggressions verbalized in college classrooms where I was often asked to share the “African-American cultural perspective” on a particular issue as if the opinions of the black community were monolithic. There were the tense moments of verbal harassment walking down streets and shopping with friends in communities where black people “had no place going.” These experiences only sharpened my sense of double consciousness, which W.E.B. Du Bois describes as the acute awareness within African Americans of always seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who hold us in both contempt and pity. As Du Bois noted in The Souls of Black Folk, “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” It is exhausting to wear on my body the contradiction of America’s promise and greatest failure.
There was one place that I could find reprieve: the Black Church. Like many leaders in the Selma campaign, I was shaped by the Black Church; it was one of the few spaces in which I felt I fully belonged. It was a religious space, yes, but it was also an unapologetically black environment in which my brown skin was seen as a badge of honor rather than a burden. My Sunday school teachers taught me the history of black life and culture within our community not written on the glossy pages of my school textbooks. From the elders, I learned that all labor had dignity. It was at church that the seeds of my activism were sown. We opened our doors to community meetings and political gathering aimed at addressing the ongoing challenges within the local black community, from policing to public housing to adequate daycare facilities.
Today, my ministry cannot be separated from my commitment to activism. Over the course of an afternoon in Selma, I heard story upon story about the consequences of intergenerational poverty in communities of color and bore witness to Alabama residents still struggling to make ends meet fifty years after Bloody Sunday. In a world that only seems to remember them when celebrating the victories of the past, their testimonies echo the cry of David in Psalm 13:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
I imagine that it was an attempt to answer this cry, “How long? How long?” that drove the first foot soldiers in Selma to organize. I know it is the cry that drives Adriane McIver’s work organizing her community in the fight for better health coverage.
Over the past five years, it is a cry I have come to know all too well. It is the same cry that rips through my heart when I see reports about the life of another black child cut short by gun violence. When black people in black neighborhoods kill these children, they become forgotten statistics. When these children are shot by white police officers, they cease to be children at all. In my prayers at night, I speak their names: Heaven Sutton, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Hadiya Pendleton. Each day the list grows and my cry becomes a scream. I scream because I am afraid that, if I do not raise my voice, the cycle of intergenerational poverty, violence, and trauma will continue without question in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Selma, Alabama.
Across the way from the fellowship hall is the sanctuary of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. If the fellowship hall is the heart of congregational life, the sanctuary is the mouthpiece that allows women and men of faith to praise God out loud. To the left of the entrance is a small monument dedicated to naming the martyrs—Jonathan M. Daniels, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, and James J. Reeb—who sacrificed their lives during the 1965 Selma campaign. Overlooking it all is the cross. Illuminated by light bulbs, the cross emanates warmth upon all those who stand in the pulpit. Many of the most prolific orators in modern American history have stood behind that sacred desk. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached there at mass meetings during the Selma campaign. When King was jailed for his civil disobedience, Malcolm X spoke from the same podium just 17 days before his assassination. On the afternoon of my pilgrimage, I heard another great orator speak from that platform. Her name is Sherri Mitchell.
Sherri is a lifelong Selma resident who has known her fair share of hardships and triumphs. That day she was one of several Alabamians invited to speak at a community hearing on poverty sponsored by Brown Chapel and the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. The real Selma, Sherri stated, was not the Selma being broadcast for the commemorative events but the Selma of the back roads. In a nation where communities of color are almost exclusively associated with urban environments, the back roads of Selma expose the conditions of poor rural blacks. These are the people who stayed. Many are the descendants of sharecroppers and laborers. Some chose to stay and solidify ties to the land and to the people that shaped them. Others were too poor to go North during the great waves of migration.
These are Sherri Mitchell’s people. Strong and proud, they demand dignity and respect even while living in conditions that more closely resemble those in the slums of the developing world than the modern cities just a few hours away. With tears in her eyes, Sherri described children living without access to basic sanitation services in their homes. She spoke of parents who did not know where and when they would purchase their next meal. She acknowledged the efforts of local organizers and activists working to make a difference. Her critique was clear: If we are to make sustainable change in communities like Selma, we must no longer distance ourselves from the poor.
It is easy to declare the conditions that Sherri described as isolated examples. Isolation allows us to strip poor people of color of their humanity and transform them into objects that can be tossed aside and then picked up again when we feel charitable. Getting close means taking up the risky work of vulnerability in search of relationships that are authentic rather than transactional. Closeness requires that we open our eyes to see, truly see, the realities facing our brothers and sisters living in poverty. Closeness requires us to see all people in their beautiful complexity. And seeing calls us to action. As global activist Arundhati Roy said, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”
Both Adriane and Sherri’s stories evoke the question at the heart of Psalm 13: How long, Lord? How long must some suffer under the suffocating hand of poverty? How long must people of color bear disproportionately more of the weight of that burden? How long will systemic violence claim the lives of black people, from Bloody Sunday to Ferguson to Staten Island? These are the questions that keep me awake at night as I attempt to unravel the seemingly impenetrable knot of theodicy and eschatology evoked in their premise. Yet, for all my fancy degrees and theological training, I have found that the answers to these questions cannot be found in texts, but they begin to be answered in the act of getting close.
I learned about the physical and spiritual toll of hunger by getting close to homeless men and women in Tennessee. As I worked to connect them to nutrition assistance programs, they told me their stories and I told them mine. In each interaction, no matter how difficult, I saw God-presence in the person in front of me and, in turn, learned a little more about the God-presence in myself. Activists in the #blacklivesmatter movement taught me that taking a stand for justice is never convenient. We got close in standing side-by-side to block traffic outside of office buildings and on the streets in order to call attention to the ongoing issue of police brutality in communities of color.
When we get close, we realize that we are not alone in the fight toward building more equitable communities across the color lines. It is in our collective action that we become the answer to the question of “How long, Lord?” Our answer is in our activism. Our answer is in our vote. Our answer is in our willingness to move beyond the comfort of our circumstances to move closer to those who are different from us. For as long as we are working in the present to bend the moral arc of history a bit more toward justice, the work of the foot soldiers toiling in the halls of Brown Chapel fifty years ago will not have been in vain. §
Rev. Jennifer Bailey is a minister, community organizer, and emerging national leader in the multi-faith movement for justice. She founded the Faith Matters Network, a new multi-faith initiative dedicated to equipping progressive faith-rooted leaders in the American South with the tools to fight injustice. Jennifer is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Find her on Twitter @revjenbailey.