A Divinity School event commemorates the 50th anniversary of Selma and explores the state of civil rights today.
A few minutes into the Q&A at a Divinity School event in early March commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches—arguably the emotional peak of the civil rights movement—an audience member asked a question that was on many people’s minds. “At Selma,” he began, “everything was concentrated on this one place, all these people, this one issue. But today, the problems”—of racism—“seem to be scattered in a million places.” In Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, demonstrators were protesting police brutality, “but as soon as you go to another place, it’s school resources, teacher resources. There’s just this huge range.” Around the room, heads nodded. Then, looking to the UChicago theologians and historians seated by the podium, the questioner, a middle-aged African American man, said: “So my question is, what’s going to motivate people; what’s going to help bring together these myriad pieces in a way that something might begin to happen?”
In a way, the whole evening felt as if it had been winding toward this question. The discussion, titled “Lessons from Selma: Then and Now,” filled every seat of Swift Hall’s third-floor lecture hall with students, professors, University administrators and staffers, and residents of the South Side. Moderated by Divinity School theologian Dwight Hopkins, four faculty members, two of whom had marched at Selma, reflected on the meaning, memory, and enduring relevance of those weeks in March 1965. National attention—and, eventually, federal guards—converged on Alabama after civil rights demonstrators were attacked and beaten by state troopers on March 7 as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, walking from Selma to Montgomery. By the time Martin Luther King Jr. led 2,000 protesters on a successful march two weeks later, President Lyndon Johnson had addressed a joint session of Congress, advocating for the legislation that would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Contemporary race issues were a strong undercurrent in the discussion: not just Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown, or of Eric Garner in New York, but also voter restrictions, the disproportionate number of African American men in prison, inequalities in housing and education, and racial violence. Talking later about how the program had come together and the packed house it had attracted, Hopkins said, “People are very concerned. People still have some very deep questions.”
In their remarks, panelists echoed those concerns and questions. Martin E. Marty, PhD’56, the Divinity School’s Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus and a historian of modern Christianity, was one of those who ventured south 50 years ago to join the demonstrations. He was a young professor then, with a miniature typewriter strapped to his body everywhere he went, to write what he was seeing and hearing. “I think we should take away from this the understanding that events like this call for the deepest things within us,” Marty said. It was in Selma where he also witnessed the practice of nonviolence in action. “Martin Luther King and his associates were really working with ordinary people who were going to get clubbed and clubbed and clubbed and were not allowed to reciprocate,” Marty said. “And I think we learned the power of nonviolence there.”
Franklin Gamwell, AM’70, PhD’73, Shailer Mathews Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the Divinity School, also marched at Selma. He recalled those events and the following year’s civil rights campaign in Chicago, which failed to evoke the same level of national response. Gamwell emphasized the importance of common focus in seeking social change, and of assembling a “national constituency.” But he added that “the awesome courage of people long debased” had “vindicated” the movement’s moral appeal, even as violent reactions to the demonstrations in Selma and elsewhere confirmed that “social advantage will not yield to justice without a contrary exercise of power.”
A historian of American religions, Curtis J. Evans sounded a similar note. Evans grew up in rural Louisiana, surrounded by people who were deeply poor and mired in hardship, and who often felt powerless to change the system they were living in. He emphasized the bravery of the ordinary local African Americans in Alabama who put themselves at considerable risk to join and assist in the civil rights demonstrations: farmers who allowed marchers to camp in their fields, churches that opened their sanctuaries to mass meetings. He told the story of Lorenzo Harrison, a pastor who had preached on voting rights and later found the church where he was holding services surrounded by Klansmen who threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave town before sundown. “In all these instances, these were individuals who were working against the constraints that had been imposed upon them in an atmosphere that was suffused with violence,” Evans said. “And they decided to work against this system that had been working on and against them for many years. So it’s local people working in the local circumstances of their lives, trying to alter decades and centuries of oppression.”
Jane Dailey, a scholar of African American history and of social, political, and legal history in the United States, sees in Selma a profound rhetorical and theological shift. In a paper that Divinity School dean Margaret M. Mitchell, AM’82, PhD’89, stepped in to read (Dailey was ill the day of the panel), Dailey argued that Selma—which took on the sense of a pilgrimage as preachers, rabbis, nuns, and other clergy flocked there at King’s urging—became a religiously, not just politically, seminal event. It fused the concept of racial equality with Christianity, countering the segregationists who had long cited scripture as justification for their beliefs. “The ranks of marching priests, ministers, and rabbis represented a concrete witness to the rightness of integration,” Dailey wrote. “A walking testimony to an ecumenical belief in racial equality rooted in a common Judeo-Christian heritage.” Five decades later, “for many Americans, including perhaps especially non-Christians, true Christianity has become synonymous with the vision of King and other Christian integrationists.”
Then came the Q&A, and the question about today’s scattering of racial issues. Marty took the first swing. Even during the intensity of Selma, he said, the civil rights movement was never as concentrated as it now appears. “A lot was going on apart from Selma,” he said. “It was very dispersed. There were cases, state after state: Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas. The strange concatenation, the way things go in history, was what it all took.”
Evans echoed Marty’s point. In the Deep South, civil rights demonstrations often focused on voting rights and Jim Crow oppression, but in the Northeast and Midwest, the pressing racial issues were different: “unequal schooling, massive unemployment, housing discrimination, and so on,” Evans said. “This is happening concurrent with and after Selma, so I don’t think there was the degree of unanimity that it would seem.” Later he would caution against falling into a “lamentation of decline” in comparing the activism of the 1960s to today. “It’s much more complicated than that.”
Gamwell tugged at a slightly different thread. “I’m not sure the problem is a scattering of difficulties—although there may well be a scattering. I’m more inclined to think that racism has gone, as it were, underground.” These days, discrimination comes out in more coded ways, Gamwell argued, for instance in some states’ push for stronger voting restrictions. He sees claims of voter fraud as “a rationalization” for voter suppression based at least in part on race. “Racism in American history is its own ideology,” Gamwell said, “with its own dynamic that cuts across other dynamics and ideologies, and makes common cause with lots of other concerns.”
Weighing in with a measure of optimism, Hopkins reported that he sees more unity and coordination across disparate racial issues today than people might think. A rallying point, like Selma—or Ferguson—with large demonstrations is always important to have. But equally important are the less visible community organizers building the networks needed to support social movements. “What I’m hearing and seeing is that there is a lot of energy, a lot of unrecognized grassroots drilling down taking place, particularly among African American youth, but it’s a rainbow coalition of young people.” He pointed to coordinated efforts in churches across the country—and not only those with African American congregations—to preach sermons around the rallying cry “black lives matter.”
At a February MLK event in San Francisco, Hopkins had met black youths who were using comic books to recruit and mobilize activist networks. Young activists in Ferguson have used social media and instant messaging. “So I think they actually are developing infrastructure on the ground, so when there’s another big national movement, they can operationalize that network.” Hopkins added: “I always remind folk, when I get a chance to share my understanding of the civil rights movement, that Montgomery”—where the Selma marches culminated in speeches by King and others on the state capitol steps—“was not a one-day event. It was a yearlong process.” And even that event, seminal as it was, was also only “a beginning for another level of the struggle.”
“Lessons from Selma: Then and Now,” a panel discussion at the Divinity School commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.