Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered….
It’s February 15, 1965, and the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian and 40 marchers arrive at the Selma courthouse. Sheriff Jim Clark is there, a bulldog, wearing his George Patton-inspired World War II helmet, and he’s not happy. Dr. Vivian walks up the steps, says they’ve come to register to vote, but Clark refuses to let them pass, says the courthouse is closed, forces them to stand in the rain.
Then Dr. Vivian sings a song, a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. He says, “Whenever anyone does not have the right to vote, then every man is hurt.” Clark doesn’t want to listen. He turns his back. Dr. Vivian can only sing more of his song full of faith, says, “You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back on the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice.”
That’s when a crowd of whites start to heckle Vivian and his song. They call him a screwball. That’s what they call this great man.
Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.
It’s March 7, 1965, and it’s the first march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. 600 people are met with beatings and tear gas. Bloody Sunday. It’s captured on film and national networks and now the nation has seen with its own eyes how America is just as bad as a place like Nazi Germany. One of the leaders of the march, John Lewis, says, ‘‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma.’’
Dr. King puts out his call. He wants troops of a different sort to stand up for justice. Clergy of all faiths. Among them, the Unitarian Universalists, who come streaming in by the hundreds. Among them, the Rev. James Reeb.
“Since my days as a Hospital Chaplain” he says, “some of my deepest concerns have related to the problems of Negro people in our society. I would like to have a further opportunity to contribute to the changes that will bring them full equality in American society. But I believe that dream of justice is one of man’s noblest aspiration and one which continues to grow in importance to me.”
But he never made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Yet his sacrifice would be enough, and more than enough. “History,” says Dr. King at the memorial service a few days later, “has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of this fine servant of God may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark state.”
And it absolutely did.
But how much consolation is there in this, for Mrs. Reeb and her children?
So many people hurt in all this. All the martyrs. All the violence.
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Stony the road we trod
We know that here, too, in Atlanta. For this story, go back even farther in time, to 1948. A black Unitarian from Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Thomas Baker Jones, comes to Atlanta University to become chairman of the Department of Social Work, and he applies for membership in the United Liberal Church, which was the ancestor congregation to UUCA and all our metro Atlanta UU congregations. Dr. Jones applies for membership and is refused. The Board of Trustees turns its back on justice, like Sheriff Jim Clark does to Dr. Vivian in 1965. That Board heckles the idea of integration. Or maybe they are just anxious. They don’t want to rock the boat. Nice people, for reasons of niceness, or simple insecurity, can do awful things…
What follows is a death that is nothing at all like the noble death of the Rev. James Reeb. The sequence of events is like dominoes falling. When the minister at the time hears the news, he resigns. The national bodies with which the church is affiliated—the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America—blacklist the congregation and urge that no minister step in to serve while it is segregationist. Then, in 1951, the American Unitarian Association, which owns the building and practically everything else because the congregation is a cheap bunch, sells the building out from under them—to the Bible Research Foundation, headed by Finis J. Dake, a fundamentalist preacher. Add insult to injury.
The United Liberal Church is dead. And it had to happen, because the church turned its back on justice.
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
Out from the gloomy past
’Til now we stand at last…
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
“Every crisis,” says Dr. King, “has both its dangers and its opportunities, its valleys of salvation or doom in a dark, confused world. The kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.”
He says, “When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way…”
We feel that power stirring in the story of Dr. Vivian and the Rev. Reeb and Lula Joe Williams and so many others. Power to make a way out of no way. The Kingdom of God may yet reign….
So, one year later, in 1952, the American Unitarian Association commissions the Rev. Glenn Canfield to create a Phoenix miracle and resurrect the United Liberal Church. The commitment, unequivocal and right from the start, is to human and civil rights. “Our fellowship includes all people, regardless of race, color, nationality, or station of life. We believe in the essential unity of humanity and that only together can we work out successful ways of living in happiness and peace.” That is what you read in the congregation’s order of service.
And this makes history. The United Liberal Church, reborn, is Atlanta’s very first integrated congregation. Says Jesus, “No one can see the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again.” We know the truth of that directly.
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
All of a sudden, a congregation that never goes above 50 in membership shoots up to more than 100, and beyond. Whitney Young, then Dean of the Atlanta School of Social Work (and later national head of the Urban League), is a member of the Board of Trustees. Dr. King, at this time assistant to his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, is a pulpit guest, as well as the Rev. Sam Williams. All these amazing things are happening because now the congregation is turning towards justice.
Nothing screwball in that at all…
So it’s the early 1960s, and Coretta Scott King is the leader of the youth group at Ebenezer. Our congregation and theirs have a joint Sunday evening program, alternating back and forth between them, so young people, black and white, can get to know one another and learn with each other. But one day the Klan calls. It threatens violence at the next Sunday evening meeting. Congregation officials consult with Mrs. King regarding the options and she says to go ahead with the meeting. All the parents are called to give them the option of keeping their children home. Not one parent holds back. And then, that evening, while inside the church the youth are building up the Kingdom of God, outside are the fathers, who ring the building, they are forming a visible wall of protection, they are part of the power to make a way out of no way, they are a part of that.
There is nothing screwball about turning towards justice.
There is nothing screwball about facing down all the Sheriff Jim Clarks who, across the years, reappear with grim regularity, most recently in the guise of the Staten Island police who had Eric Garner in a choke hold and Eric Garner croaked out “I can’t breathe” eleven times but no one was listening and then he died, another martyr in a long line of martyrs, another family bereft, another sign of the stony road we tread, another sign of the bitter chastening rod.
We are not done yet. And yet,
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Our weary feet have come to the place for which our fathers and mothers sighed, and struggled, and died. Our feet have come to this place. Because of people like Dr. C. T. Vivian and the Rev. James Reeb and Lula Joe Williams and the people of the reborn United Liberal Church who made history here in Atlanta, whose fathers put their bodies on the line to protect the miracle that was happening inside the church—the Kingdom of God being being built through the delight of young people coming to know each other and crossing boundaries of race.
We must keep crossing boundaries.
We must keep on building the Kingdom.
We must ring it with our lives, to protect what’s being built.
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever on the path, we pray.
Never stop turning towards justice.
Don’t let the hecklers stop you.
Don’t let the sheriffs stop you.
Don’t let niceness stop you.
Don’t let the fact that sometimes, like James Reeb, we won’t ourselves cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We have to leave that to others.
We must never prejudge what our influence can be.
How dare we stop ourselves before we even begin?
How dare we give up because we can’t jump immediately to full victory?
Bring your gift to the altar anyhow, whatever it is.
There is a power to make a way out of no way.
That power is real.
That power stirs in this place right now.
Be a part of it.
Turn towards justice.