Selma: A Lesson in White Ally-ship

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday…
Deep in my heart,
I do believe
That we shall overcome, someday…

Before marching in Selma for the fiftieth anniversary, the hundreds of us Unitarian Universalists (and a few non-UUs) had lunch at the City of St. Jude’s. At the end, our music team led us in that song. Those words. We shall overcome. And all of us—the hundreds filling that whole gym—linked hands and sang those words, filled with that persistent hope, that surviving belief. Veterans who had march in ’65. Young people of color leading the new movements for racial justice. And, overwhelming, white allies. We shall overcome.

I cried. I won’t lie. And I wasn’t alone. It was a transcendent moment, speaking to the reckless hope that all who do justice work must have. It was a moment when I loved my community—our history and our ongoing commitment to overcoming injustice—deeply.

I thought the march would feel like that, too. But it didn’t, exactly.

We had spent the previous days listening to amazing speakers at the Marching in the Arc of Justice conference. We’d heard Rev. Dr. William Barber, leader of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement, and Opal Tometi, cofounder of #BlackLivesMatter. We had listened, rapt, to the stories of the Civil Rights Movement veterans. C.T. Vivian, important leader in the Civil Right Movement and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. Clark Olsen, tearing up as he recalled being in Selma with James Reeb when Reeb was fatally attacked by white supremacists. The secretary of the UU Church in Birmingham and her stories of getting used to answering bomb threats in those days. Inspirational stories, stories that made me proud to be a part of a religious movement with that kind of history.

But then we went to Selma. And Selma is not ours.

Not ours alone, not mostly ours. We Unitarian Universalists are part of a much larger mosaic, a much bigger movement of many more colors. Yes, more Unitarian ministers responded to King’s call back in the day than any other religion or denomination. Yes, we lost UUs James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo to the fight for justice—and those are lost lives to be honored.

But, as that trending hashtag reminded us, #SelmaIsNow. We heard it over and over again at the conference. Opal Tometi, cofounder of #BlackLivesMatter, said, “It’s not only a bridge crossing that happened in the past. It’s alive, it’s active.” Rev. Krista Taves told us, “We don’t need to wait for the next Selma. It’s happening now.” And now is not the same time as 1965. Now, we have postmodern thought. Critical race theory. Intersectionality. Third waves. Audre Lorde! We have the vocabulary of white privilege and ally-ship and marginalization.

And Selma, this time around, in 2015, reminded me how important it is for us—as a mostly white religious movement, as a people who say we are committed to justice—to learn that vocabulary and those theories. To educate ourselves.

We were reminded of this at the Marching in the Arc of Justice conference. I was reminded of this. Opal Tometi talked about the importance of the marginalized leading in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the need for white allies to make covenants to respect black leadership. A young black woman asked into the Q&A mike about the lack of people of color in the line to ask questions. Rev. Krista Taves, who continued to preach about racial justice even as she lost members of her congregation to it, told us that true white allies need to be willing to stand firm against appeasing other whites who get uncomfortable when race comes up. Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed said that micro-aggressions are the new face of racism. I saw this myself, when I came up to talk to a group of young people of color at the end of a long day at the conference and was told that they really needed some time without white people taking up space—they were exhausted from a day of micro-aggressions by well-meaning white folk.

That was at our conference. Those speakers were talking to us, speaking truth to our movement’s whiteness, a whiteness that often lacks critical reflection on privilege and holistic ally-ship.

You see, we UUs have a problem with getting behind someone—or something—else. We like to speak our minds—heck, that’s kind of a signature of our movement. We like to emphasize individual freedom—in fact, the idea of a personal search for meaning is one of our seven principles.

One of our other principles, however, (as Rev. Krista Taves pointed out) is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed echoed this when he focused his keynote on the importance of relationship and mutuality. Of love.

And our big social justice movement—our bright yellow shirts!—says that we are Standing on the Side of Love, right?

Sometimes Standing on the Side of Love means shutting up. It means being willing to learn from marginalized voices. It means using our privilege to empower those voices, not use our own. It means listening. It means being willing to not be at the front of a march, not to push through the crowd of people of color with our bright, shiny banner. It means not turning Selma into good PR for Unitarian Universalism.

I was stunned by the thousands of marchers at Selma when we were there. 70,000 was the latest count I heard. And one of the staggering things for me, after spending the past few days holed up in a conference center with mostly white people, was how many of the marchers were people of color. Black families, taking their children across in strollers and on shoulders. Groups of college students. Elders, using canes and wheelchairs to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Activists, holding up #BlackLivesMatter signs and hoodie cutouts and the names of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and John Crawford and Brother Africa and so many others. Some of them saw our Unitarian Universalist banner and said something in recognition, but most of them didn’t really care that much who we were. They had their own reasons for crossing this bridge—their own issues to fight for. We might have been just some white people, being unnecessarily pushy in our efforts to stay together.

I got separated from the rest of the UUs at one point (leading to some panic, as I was supposed to be keeping track of the youth group). I found myself in the midst of a black church group, who started singing, in our slow, crowded way up the bridge, “We Shall Overcome.” That song again, which probably has a more visceral meaning for these people who were surrounding me than it does for me, the white girl in their midst. I didn’t sing with the soaring voices. I just listened. Shut up. And walked alongside, in solidarity.

I found the UUs later. It wasn’t that hard—there weren’t that many white people (especially ones in bright yellow shirts). Where were all the white people? I had expected there to be more. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Perhaps it signals why being good allies is so important—because we UUs are a mostly white movement, but one who shows up. In 1965, in 2015. We show up.

If we can show up, we can educate ourselves. We don’t have to be the one sad white man crossing the bridge with a sign that said, “I’m sorry,” the epitome of white liberal guilt. We don’t have to be the ones pushing to the front of the march. We don’t have to be the ones meaning well as we exhaust the people of color in our midst with micro-aggressions. We can be examples, just as those UUs who showed up fifty years ago in Selma were to the rest of the nation. We can be okay with getting lost among the crowds, with not being recognized and not being heard—but being there, crossing the bridge in relationship with a larger beloved community.

I loved my experience in Selma and at the Marching in the Arc of Justice Conference. I’ve come away on fire, even more inspired to do racial justice work and to throw myself deeper into relationship with others committed to that work. I was able to go to the conference on a scholarship, and I am infinitely grateful to the generous UUs who donated to make that possible.

I love our movement. I loved that moment when we, imperfect as we are, held hands and belted out the words to “We Shall Overcome” in that gym. I love that we care about transforming the world into a place of love and justice. It’s because I love all of us Unitarian Universalists so much that I believe we can do better. We white UUs can be stronger allies. We can use the strengths of our movement to empower and join hands with the marginalized. We can listen better to the voices of people of color already within our movement. There are already UUs doing this important work. There are already those among us creating relationships, building those bridges that Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed talked about.

We shall overcome, we shall make new Selma moments, and we will do it in ever-more-just ways, bending the arc of the moral universe always a little further toward that far-off goal. For deep in my heart, I do believe, as Opal Tometi told us, “We truly are the ones we have been waiting for.” Together and in solidarity, beloved community, we shall.

To read about more of the highlights from the conference, check out the Storify here

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