selma @ 50 “Still I Rise”
Good evening, my name is David Carl Olson and I have the privilege to serve this community as Minister of First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. On the front of our historic building flies an angel, the Angel of Truth, and I greet you in the name of Truth, and welcome you to this Temple of Truth. Since the founding of this congregation nearly 200 years ago, the corner of Charles and Franklin Streets has welcomed people of diverse belief and coherent action amid the values of unity and tolerance, fortitude and peace.
When our founders created this congregation in 1817 and built this Temple in 1818, they were seeking a more democratic religion, a religion for our country at their time. They based their actions on the example of the Jewish prophet Jesus, and believed that a simple and reasonable reading of his story was an adequate basis for living ethically, morally and spiritually in a democracy. They committed themselves to democratic ends.
We have never been satisfied with democracy, in society and even in this congregation. Over the years, our democracy changed. We began with a small group of pew owners who ran things in this place. We extended voice and vote to include women who could vote by proxy, to Black men who had originally been excluded, to people who did not own pews but rented them. It was in the twentieth century that all members of the church, regardless of social status, were given both voice and vote. Perfecting democracy in this church required the creation of a new understanding, a new application of reason that allowed a new culture to emerge.
In our nation, the perfection of democracy has been a long and involved processâ€”and we acknowledge that even today it is far from perfect. But the year 1965 captured the imagination of the nation as the demands for access to voting was raised as a key demand and related to questions of open violence against African Americans. Jimmie Lee Jackson had been ruled ineligible to register to vote for four years; but took as a tenet of his Baptist faith that he was somebody, and that he had every right to register, every right to vote. Marching with other civil rights workers to protest the jailing of James Orange, Deacon Jackson was gunned down by the Alabama State Police. In response to the pain of this outrageous violence against a peaceful people, James Bevel and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called people of faith to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, â€œBloody Sunday,â€ a wall of state troopers met this people of conscience, morality and ethics with violence, and prevented them from crossing the bridge. Dr. King called on people of faith from throughout the nation to join the marchers, and what some call â€œTurnaround Tuesdayâ€ was planned for March 9, where 2,500 people joined in confrontingâ€”though not yet crossingâ€”the Edmund Pettis Bridge. That evening, three White ministers were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, and Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb became our first martyr to this cause.
The events of Selma will be remembered this year in this Temple of Truth, not to wax nostalgic about those golden days of Unitarian Universalist leadership and identity, not only to raise the names of martyrs Jimmie Lee Jackson and Unitarian Universalists James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, but to take stock of where we are as a church, where we are as a country. I believe we have a long way to go, and I think our year of thinking about Selma is a year for thinking about how this congregation can reach into the community to find allies and to be part of the cultural change that this nation needs if it is to live into the promise of democracy. We need to find ways to respond to the violence that is being meted out to Black young menâ€”often at the hands of the police. We need to face squarely the â€œnew Jim Crowâ€ which is permanently excising Black men from social and democratic life. We need to be part of the cultural change that this nation requires at this time if the promise of democracy is to be fulfilled.
We are so pleased this evening to be joined by the co-sponsoring people who make this night possible: our co-religionists of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Harford County, the Unitarian Universalists of Fallston; our colleagues in the struggle for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the religious community, the Faith Communities of Baltimore with Pride; and our diverse friends from Union Baptist Church, St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church and St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Parish. Welcome all and thank you for your support.
There will be other selma@50 Still I Rise events this year. Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, author of The Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism, will be delivering a Zoerheide Lecture on Religion in the Public Square in January or February (date still being worked on). In March, Charles Blackburn, who served as Minister of the UU Church in Huntsville, Alabama during those days, will preach from this pulpit on March 1. I, myself, will preach on March 14 after returning from the Selma Commemoration. And on UU Unity Weekend, we plan a community concert on Sunday, May 3. Stay tuned as details are developed.
But here we are tonight. This Sanctuary will be blessed by the music of our artist in residence Music Director James Houston; and Orpheus Music Global, artists from Morgan State University, will present the premiere of a work that they will tour later this year, â€œAnd We Keep Growing Stronger.â€ I canâ€™t say how pleased I am that Vincent Dion Stringer and Samuel Springer, joined by Evander McLean and Richard Keller II, under the direction of Dwight RB Cook, have created this eveningâ€™s feature piece, which I believe tells a great, long, important, epochal story of a people; tells the story not just to remember, although remember we must, but to prepare us all to writing the next chapters of the human story as we do our part in this living legacy of powerful faith, this living legacy of democracy and social engagement, this living legacy of Truth. Let us begin.