A Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Philip Mitchell
Given at The Federated Church of Orleans, UCC
January 19, 2014
Since this is the weekend we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a special way, I was invited to speak of my participation in a march led by Dr. King. It was in 1965 – the last day of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
Five of us, ministers in the New Hampshire Conference of the UCC, flew from Logan Airport to Birmingham, AL. We arrived there at 2:00 a.m., and were met by a layman from the Unitarian Church. The first thing he said to us was: “Remember, not everyone here loves you … if somebody insults you, threatens you, or makes gestures toward you, ignore them.”
We were part of a large number of demonstrators at the airport, divided into several small groups. Ours numbered 13. We were told we would spend the rest of the night in a building behind “Larry’s place.” We were told not to be noisy. The neighbors were either indifferent or hostile. With those brief comments, we were ‘hurried into a limousine and. a private car.
When we got to our destination, there was another man there, to greet us. He took the group to the back of a house quickly. I stayed behind to pay the driver. I heard someone say, “You’d better hurry!” It took a moment to pay the driver. I raced to the back of the house – traveling bag in my hand – and nobody was there! In the· darkness I could make out a few house but only one had lights on. I headed for that house – the right one. They locked and latched the door behind me. It. was then 3 :00 a.m.
We bedded down the best we could. I found a place in the attic next to the chimney where I lay down in my bathrobe. Why I took my bathrobe I don’t know, but it came in handy. We were told to get up at 5:00 a.m. By 5:15 everyone was packed, dressed and ready to meet the day with almost no conversation whatever. At 5:.15 the doors opened. There was a car outside with its motor running.
The shuttle to the church began. The precision of the whole thing began to unnerve me. At the Unitarian Church we had our breakfast and instructions.
We were told what to do in the event tear gas was used. We were also told, what to do in the event billy clubs were used. ”Get on your knees, put your hands behind your neck and, if you happen to have a Bible, put that on the back of your neck.” Then they added WITH EMPHASIS, “Above all, remember -no resistance!”
By that time buses had arrived. We boarded the buses for St. Jµde’s Hospital in Montgomery, our sandwich for lunch in hand . That destination, about 80 miles away, was the last stopping place for those who had walked from Selma.
In a short while we were instructed to get in line – men on the outside, girls and women on the inside. White people and black people were spread out. Those who wore orange jackets had walked all the way from Selma and were at the head of the line, as they should have been.
For 2 ½ hours we stood there, sometimes in the there, sometimes in the sun, and always in the mud. A great many American flags were distributed to us. I got one but a young woman who stood near me wished she had one so I gave it to her thinking: “Sister, you have waited a long time to carry this flag down the streets of Montgomery.”
We continued to stand in the rain and the mud but I hadn’t seen such patience in a long time – or such jubilation! People were singing those freedom songs – belting them right out -talking, laughing, giving expression to their nervousness! State Troopers and National Guardsmen were everywhere – bull horns – helicopters flying around.
Finally the march began – a rush and then slower – a rush again. A young girl, Mable, was frankly pretty heavy. She puffed, “I can’t go so fast!” I said, “Come on Mable it’s – .. good for you!” That was the spirit of the march. But she fell further back.
When we marched through a Black community, people at the side of the road were absolutely jubilant. Little children ran to touch us. Older people sat on their porches in a rocking chairs and clapped their hands and sang freed songs with us. As we passed a school, the windows were full of smiling faces so high don’t know how they could have piled that high.
The mood changed abruptly when we turned a corner to march down the main street. As we walked with larger buildings on each side, it was like walking down a canyon of hostility. Our hearts beat faster. The tempo of the music quickened. I looked across the line of marchers to another New Hampshire minister. Our eyes met in a meaningful way. A flag snapped in the breeze near me. A shive went down my spine.
The clapping became strong, intense and precise, echoing off the buildings like the sound of gunshot. There were not a lot of people on the sidewalk but those who were there were vocal. One of them called me a particular kind of white trash. A man in front of me was carrying an attaché case. One man shouted at him “Hey, you with the suitcase, I knew you were a half-breed!” So on. Use your imagination for the rest.
Finally, we reached the capitol building, a massive assembly perhaps 35,000 strong. At first we sat on the pavement. One young girl gave me some potato chips. We were there a long time, standing and sitting and listening to speeches: Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, and, of course, Dr. King.
Someone noticed there was no American flat on top of the capitol building – only the flag of Alabama and the Confederate flag. Someone said there was an American flag off to one side but I didn’t see it. Everyone who had a flag raised it. I was surprised to feel so choked up – as though somebody squeezed my heard when all the American flags went up – some on broken sticks, causing them to hand sideways, some partly unfastened from their staff. In whatever condition, those flags went up. Tears came as they sang with such feeling and power:
“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The day ended – back to the buses – back to the Unitarian Church in Birmingham – then by car to the airport. We were unaware that, on a similar mission, Viola Liuzo, a woman from Detroit, mother of small children, had been gunned down somewhere between Montgomery and Selma – killed.
I was naïve enough not to know what the reaction would be in the then small New England town where I was the minister of the only church. The town was stirred up, dust flying everywhere. The Sunday after my return we had the largest congregation I ever saw in that church. We had to set up folding chairs in the aisles.
There were those who were enormously pleased that I’d marched with Dr. King. When I went into the village store, they treated me like Caesar returning to Rome. About ½ of the town was of another mind. “Shouldn’t mix politics and religion!” “The church has no business in politics!” Well, personally I absolutely agree with that. The church should not be involved in politics. But, in my view, the question is not political. It is a moral question. It has to do with human behavior and human rights. It has to do with justice, fairness, what is plainly right.
One evening Barb and I were playing canasta in the living room, wondering what was going on in town, when there was a knock on the kitchen door. I opened the door and there was a man who, as it was told to me, said he would resign from the Board of Deacons and from the church, if I marched with Dr. King. He had a letter in his hand. I took it and read it. It was a letter signed by every member of the Board of Deacons, commending me for having followed my conscience, and he wanted to be the one to deliver it.
I am forever grateful for the maturity of that church. They separated personalities from issues. They debated the issues but I have no memory of even once feeling personally rejected.
So – as the prophet Amos said:
“Let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness line an ever-flowing stream.”