27 “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. 30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you.
32 “If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! 33 And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! 34 And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.
35 “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. 36 You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.Modern Reading
In 1965, Reverend James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister, was murdered in Selma, Alabama, at the height of the civil rights movement. Three men were tried and acquitted, but no one was ever held accountable. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered Reeb’s eulogy in Selma. Here’s part of what he said:
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.
He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice.
He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.
He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights.
Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.
Can you imagine a scene where the fate of your life depended on whether you turned right or left when you left a restaurant? That is precisely what happened to Rev. James Reeb, age 38, married father of 4 on March 9, 1965 when he left the Walker Café in Selma, AL.
Civil rights workers from the north were unwelcomed in the small southern city. The people there had a reputation for being “angry and mean” to those working for voting rights. Nevertheless, this city has become a focal point in the struggle for justice for African Americans 100 years after the end of the Civil War.
Rev. Reeb and the two other Unitarian ministers with him had just finished dinner in one of the two integrated cafes in town before they went to an organizational meeting for an upcoming march.
Just two days earlier, the disastrous Bloody Sunday massacre has occurred when other marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way from Selma to Birmingham. How many of you remember seeing coverage of Bloody Sunday on the news? Dr. King was now organizing a second attempt at the march to Birmingham.
Rev. Jim Reeb left the pastorate to work in inner city Boston. Civil rights was his passion. He knew he had to join Dr. King.
The trio of pastors were not familiar with Selma. They had no idea that turning right instead of left on their way to Brown AME Chapel would be such a momentous choice.
Their route took them past a notorious bar where liquored up and fired up segregationists were ranting about the media coverage of their city and about the people from the north coming to stir up trouble, in their view. Several well known bullies left the bar and followed the pastors, catching up to them. Jim Reeb was closest to the curb. The pastors knew not to make eye contact and kept walking fast. Suddenly a baseball bat came down on Jim Reeb’s head.
He fell to the ground and the other men started beating and kicking him and the other pastors. Jim died several days later after a convoluted and harrowing ambulance ride to Birmingham for treatment.
Shortly thereafter, three men were arrested in connection with his attack and a fourth was suspected but not found. They went to trial in December of that year and were acquitted. No witnesses came forward to testify against them. Yet, there had been many witnesses to the attack. One witness many years later said, “I did not name no names. I tried to forget it. When you get bad stuff in your head, you just leave it alone.”
After the trial, the argument made by the defense attorney was widely repeated and believed. Today we would say it “went viral.” He told the jury that the attack had happened but was not murder. Instead, people within the Civil Rights movement killed Jim or let him die so that they had a white martyr for their cause. No one wanted this trouble in Selma. Those folks had brought it on themselves.
I am indebted to a podcast series on NPR entitled “White Lies” for the stories for this sermon. Two journalists who are from Alabama went back to the area and spent 4 years trying to uncover the story behind the story and the reasons the murder went unsolved for so long. If you want to learn more about what the journalists uncovered and hear more first-person accounts, I encourage you to listen to the series.
How did things get to this awful boiling point in March of 1965? To understand that, we must now turn to the story of Jimmy Lee Jackson.
The fate of these two men who never met is inextricably tied. Rev. Reeb was in Selma BECAUSE of what had happened to this 26-year-old military veteran and deacon in his church just weeks before. Here is some background to help you get the bigger picture.
In the early 1960’s, voting rights activists ruled out trying to work in and around Selma because of opposition from whites and because the African Americans in the area were very afraid and did not believe change could come for them. Very slowly, young activists began to build trust among the younger members of the African American community like Jimmy Lee Jackson. They organized voting rights drives which were met with mass arrests. So many were arrested that there was no more room to detain people and they were all let go. Consciences were raised and hope for change built. They decided to march day and night. This was in February of 1965. On the first night march, Jimmy Lee left his church with the other marchers.
The group was pushed back toward the church by local police and state troopers who beat the marchers. Jimmy Lee could not get back inside the church. He fled to a local café. Other marchers came too, including his grandfather. But the attackers followed them. While trying to protect his grandfather, he was beaten further then dragged and pinned against a wall. For absolute no reason, a state trooper fired at his abdomen at point blank range.
Jimmy Lee Jackson died of a massive infection 8 days later. At the time, no one was charged with his murder.
45 years later in 2010, that the state trooper who shot him was finally brought to trial. He claimed self-defense. A plea deal was reached for second degree manslaughter. He spent only 5 months in jail.
Dr. King preached Jackson’s funeral sermon. He led a line of mourners over 1/4-mile-long as they processed 4 miles in the rain to the cemetery for his burial. His entire community mourned. But segregationists were so upset by the attention given this man by Dr. King that they shot up his tombstone. The bullet holes remain to this day. Harry can attest to that as he visited his grave on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage several years ago.
After Jimmy Lee’s death, young activists gathered to think about next steps. One young man remembered a Bible story he was told in his youth about Queen Esther going to the king to ask for mercy for her people. He convinced others that was what they had to do. They had to go to the seat of government in Birmingham and demand justice for their people. The idea for a march from Selma to Birmingham was born. The first march took place on March 7, 1965 which became known as Bloody Sunday.
On that fateful day, police with clubs and teargas waited for the marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge. Among those beaten was the very young John Lewis, now Senator Lewis, who was at the head of the march.
The authorities did not count on the fact that the national press and television would be there. Cameras rolled as the violence erupted and images flooded living rooms across the country. The next day Dr. King put out the call around the country for the faithful supporters to come to Selma to help. That was the call heard and responded to by James Reeb. Do you see now how without Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death and the resulting response, Rev. Reeb would not have come to Selma? Without the sacrifice of both men, the voting rights act may not have gotten to the top of the pile on President Johnson’s desk who signed it into law.
Activists both black and white lamented that it took the death of a white man from the north to get national attention. After all, the President and First Lady sent a bouquet of yellow roses to Rev. Reeb’s funeral. No such bouquet arrived for the funeral of Jimmy Lee Jackson. One activist said, “our lives are not worth the same in life or in death.” Another said,” Jimmy Lee Jackson was a man who will be missed by his family. He was a human being too.” And lastly, “There were many gains that came as a result of events in Selma. One of the tragedies was that white America was unable to feel the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson with the same intensity as that of Jim Reeb.”
Here we are, 54 years after those fateful events. Half a century. Friends, did the thought cross your mind as it did mine that not near enough has changed? That we have not learned from history? That we have lost ground in the struggle for justice for all?
The two journalists who researched James Reeb’s murder case stated they undertook this work to try to give some closure to the family. Another reason was for the sake of history.They lamented that it may take another 100 years for real change to come. They concluded that the outing of wrongs done is a start in the rebuilding of society, a collective cleansing. It feels to me like the time has come for a collective cleansing far beyond the confines of the city of Selma.
To get to the point where we as a nation are even open to the need for that cleansing, here are a few of my conclusions:
· We need to listen very carefully because the dominant narrative is not necessarily the truth.
· We need to trust our instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. Long-held secrets are corrosive personally and societally. As one of my mentors succinctly put it, “Light and air are good for living things.”
· We need to go over and above with love. This is one of the most difficult learnings from today’s gospel message to “love our enemies.” It is also one of the hardest to do. I fail miserably at it.
When I hear of wrongdoing as in these men’s stories, I want to judge and point my finger. When I do, my energies go the wrong way. I am supposed to focus on doing my part which is to love mercy, to do justice and to walk humbly. The forces that would see me defeated love it when I defeat myself.
· You do your part too. You may never know how your actions make a difference in the larger story.
· But trust this: they will make a difference.
When you stand on the side of love, when you speak up for the voiceless, when you lift the powerless, the sacred energies of the universe are there, flowing freely.
The dominant narrative, the secrets, the lies?
They will not last. The truth will last.
As Dr. King said at James Reeb’s funeral:
“we must work passionately, unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality for all, so that these brave men did not die in vain.” May it be so.