March 10, 2008

Selma, Alabama. Bus boycott. March to Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Brown Chapel AME Church. Rosa Parks. Bloody Sunday. Voting Rights Act. Sheriff Clarke. Teacher’s March.

History runs deep in the streets of Selma. We watched the Eyes on the Prize section that covered Bloody Sunday and the town looked exactly the same as it did in that film. It was cool because you could really get a sense of how the original march felt, 43 years ago. It was also sad, because Selma was so poor and didn’t seem to be kept up very well. Clearly there was a lot of pride in the history of Selma and the importance of the events there. But my overwhelming visual impression of the town was of abandoned houses, old mom-and-pop shops, and overgrown cements slab lots.

The service at Brown Chapel was amazing. Amazing! It was unlike anything I could have imagined. We were sitting there, all squeezed into the tiny balcony area, and there were 5 or 6 preachers sitting on the stage. Then Jesse Jackson walked in. A few minutes later, Al Sharpton walked in. Then Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee and Maxine Waters. Then Senator John Lewis and Senator Hank Sanders. Later, Judge Greg Mathis walked onto the stage. Each time a new person came, everyone shuffled around and gave that person a seat. There was constant conversation and hand shaking throughout the whole service. And everyone spoke! Everyone got up and gave a short lesson or greeting, and finally Jesse Jackson stood up and spoke for a long while. He told the story of how he and others went through the projects the night Reverend Reed was murdered and tried to get information. Brown Chapel is actually surrounded by identical-looking projects on two sides. Oh man, I had no idea any of those people would be there!

Rev. Jackson also spoke about the current presidential race and said that we are focusing too much on the horses in the “horse race” for presidency. Instead, he said, we should be focusing on the wagons that they are pulling and who is and is not in those wagons. We want a work horse! (YESSUH! Tell the truth, we need to hear it!) Not a show horse! (AMEN! Yes, brother! THAT’S RIGHT!) Focus on the wagon, brothers and sisters, and whose wagon we are actually in.

Takeaway quote: “The ground is no place for a champion, and nothing is too hard for God!”

I don’t know how to explain Al Sharpton’s sermon. It was one of the most amazing things that I have ever been a part of. He talked about combing his hair, and Joshua taking Moses’ bones across the river, and James Brown, and the evils of misogyny in rap music, and suffering being necessary for resurrection, and faith, and his mother, and young people. He joked and he yelled and he shook his fist. He spun around, sang, slammed his fist on the podium, and threw his arms in the air. It was wonderful. Wonderful.

At one point he asked the congregation to “turn briefly” to Romans 6. All the preachers on the stage started laughing- they are all old friends and I guess they knew that he could only have meant briefly in the broadest sense of the word. Jesse Jackson was sitting behind him and whenever he liked something that Al Sharpton said he was lean forward and hit him in the side. I mean, really whack him. It was so funny! The congregation and the choir was constantly standing up and down, screaming, shaking, falling over, waving their arms in the air…wonderful. So alive and joyful. And the organ. The organ! It had that tinny sound you hear on old gospel records. It was played during the choir’s songs, but also to emphasize points during Al Sharpton’s sermon.

For example, Al Sharpton was telling a story about how a white reporter came to church with him one Sunday and asked why a woman in the choir was waving her arms back and forth. “I SAID, you don’t know that woman!” (organ hits a few strong chords, congregation yells “YESSS!”, choir stands up and waves their arms) “She was at work one day!” (same response) “She passed out!” (“YESSSS!”) “Her boss wouldn’t pay her!” (“UH OH!”) “When she got out!”….”She got an eviction notice!”….”She had 72 hours!”…”She was packing her stuff!”…”She trusted GOD!”…”She went to the mailbox”…”There was a check in her mailbox!” (congregation stomps their feet, screams “YES JESUS!”, shakes their heads, practically faints all over themselves).

It was wonderful.

Takeaway quote: “They walked over that bridge so you could be more than a ho!” (referring to the degrading lyrics in rap music), and “The hands that picked cotton in Alabama are now going to pick a president!”

Then we marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and thought about the meaning of Bloody Sunday, and the change that was a result of the bravery of a hundred every day people in Selma.

More as I remember it.


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