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Unitarian Universalists smiled when we heard President Obama mention “a young mother of five” in his stirring speech in Selma, Alabama, last weekend. If one hadn’t heard of Viola Liuzzo, one might have thought he was just giving a random example of the kind of person who might possibly have answered the call to go to Selma, the way a speech will refer to “a Georgia sharecropper” or “a factory worker from Cleveland.” In fact, when he spoke of “the willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise,” we knew that he was talking about three specific people who not only risked, but paid the ultimate price: Baptist deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, Unitarian minister the Reverend James Reeb, and Detroit Unitarian Universalist Viola Liuzzo.

Although I don’t know her story in a great deal of detail, and can’t know her personality enough to be sure, I doubt Liuzzo went to Alabama to die. She went to join in a struggle for justice that she regarded as hers as much as anyone’s, and while she knew it was dangerous because she’d seen the terrifying coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” when people were beaten as they tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, she joined a march there two weeks later and was unharmed. Maybe having taken that plunge, she felt safe. Maybe she didn’t really suppose that teaming up with another activist to drive people from the Montgomery airport to Selma could be as risky as that march. But a carload of KKK members chased them down the highway, pulled up next to them and fired into the car, killing Liuzzo instantly.

I ask myself now and then, for what would I risk everything? Mostly I would like to give my life by living and working for a cause, not by dying for it. When I think of what I would risk dying for, I think of freedom and fairness, of the earth, but mostly of people: people I know. It’s a principle of community organizing and congregational leadership that what people give to, sacrifice for, go to the wall for, is their connection with other people. When we know someone who is suffering under oppression, abstractions such as freedom and justice take on flesh. They acquire a face, and the face silently asks us to act. Their fight becomes our fight.

It’s probable that that face was a specific one in Liuzzo’s life: her close friend Sarah Evans, who was African American. Evans warned her that it could be dangerous, but as Liuzzo told her husband, she felt compelled to go to Selma because what they were seeing on television was “everybody’s fight.” Lots of other white people joined it, though mercifully few paid the price that Liuzzo did; but in any fight, most of us cheer or cry from the sidelines, while only a few actually pack a bag and show up on the battlefield. The world is turned by those like Liuzzo who do, and whenever I hear her story, I wonder again whether I’m ever one of them, and for what, or for whom, I’ll fight and even die.

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(Two notes: Blogging every day is hard! Losing an almost-finished entry to a technical glitch is a huge gumption killer–save your draft often, kids! Okay, done whining now. On to three posts on women in the civil rights movement, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the marches on Selma.)

EllaBakerElla Baker was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), having already spent many decades as a leader of the NAACP and of black consumers’ cooperatives, which she regarded as a training ground in democracy and self-determination. Accounts vary as to whether Martin Luther King anointed her Executive Director of the SCLC or she anointed him leader. What’s clear is that her leadership was central to turning this small faith-based organization into a major force for civil rights.

She was mostly a behind-the-scenes organizer and a mentor to emerging leaders who got more face time, but that doesn’t mean she was meek. When students in Greensville and Nashville began holding sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, she saw a need to help them organize more broadly, and called a meeting at her alma mater, Shaw University. The meeting was attended by hundreds and ended with the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Other SCLC leaders wanted SNCC to be an auxiliary of their own organization, arguing that SCLC had helped it get rolling, but Baker stood up for the autonomy of the student organization. Later, she helped start the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which pressed for anti-segregationists to represent Mississippi’s Democrats at the 1964 Democratic Convention and became the focus of tremendous media attention during the convention because of the split in the Democratic Party that it illuminated and the persistence with which it made its case. Meek? No.

To me she stands as a reminder of a certain kind of power: not fast and flashy like lightning, nor loud like a rocket, but tireless and immovable, like an oak tree. That kind of power is as necessary and mighty as any other. “We shall not be moved . . . ”

When the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner drew the nation’s eye to Mississippi, it was Ella Baker who pointed out the many black bodies in the swamps of Mississippi that neither the FBI nor the nation’s conscience had deemed important, and said, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son–we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Bernice Johnson Reagon of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock turned these and other words of Baker’s into a song (“Ella’s Song”), and they have been sung, murmured, memed, screenprinted, and cried out many times in these past couple of years in which they have been self-evidently, painfully, all too current.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. (“The Principles of Newspeak,” appendix to 1984, George Orwell)

By Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) (File published on Camden House (Ignisart.com)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sidney Paget (1860 – 1908) (File published on Camden House (Ignisart.com)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You’re strapped face-up to a board so you can’t move, with a cloth pressed over your face, and turned head-down by 15 degrees or so. Water is poured over your nose and mouth. You gag, you vomit, you pass out as your lungs gasp helplessly for air that can’t get through. It takes only a second for the experience to become unbearably painful, and it goes on and on. In your desperation to escape, you may break your own bones against the restraints. The cloth keeps the ultimate effect, death, from happening too fast–the person pouring the water doesn’t want you to die, not yet–but you may well die if the brain damage from oxygen deprivation is extreme enough, or if you breathe vomit into your lungs. You don’t just feel like you’re drowning. You are drowning.

The CIA calls this “waterboarding.” That word sounds harmless, even fun. Maybe it’s a sport, like waterskiing or surfing–something involving a board and water and good times. Someone might say, “I’m tired of longboarding and snowboarding–let’s go waterboarding!”

No word in the B vocabulary was ideologically neutral. A great many were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labour camp) or Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i. e. Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean.

What the CIA and its defenders want us to call “waterboarding” is torture, and calling it by the gentler name the torturers invented helps conceal the crime. If a more descriptive term than “torture” is needed, the term might be “drowning into unconsciouness” or “drowning to a point just short of death,” or simply “torture by drowning.” Every serious news source has a reader representative (readers@washpost.com, for example) or ombudsperson (here is the contact form for National Public Radio’s), or of course a Letters to the Editor section. Whenever I hear or read the term “waterboarding,” unless it’s clarified by “as the CIA calls it” and replaced in subsequent uses by an accurate term, I’m going to write to the source in question and tell them their job is to give us news, not Newspeak.

Take for example the well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government. . .

It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping to the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink. A full translation could only be an ideological translation, whereby Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government.

 

cardI got this letter in the mail today.

Dear miss Amy

In response to your letter printed in S.J. Mer. I don’t know which Bible you teach from but my Bible teaches that marriage is between a man & a woman I Cor. 7-1-5 also that sexual immorality is a sin I Cor. 6-12-15 Homosexuality is a sin I Cor. 6-9 I tim 1-10. Also beware of false teachers Mat. 7-15 I believe that the Bible is God’s word and should be followed not added to or taken away from the Holy Word! May God have mercy on your soul!

No signature, but written on such a sweet card (see photo) that it almost qualifies for Passive Aggressive Notes.

Since she didn’t include her return address or even her name, this woman is clearly not interested in hearing what I (false teacher that I am) think the Bible says about marriage, nor my views on its being God’s holy and complete word. Anyone who wishes to, post in the comments and I’ll be happy to oblige.

Dear Senator Graham,

Your comment on CNN about the need to amend the Constitution in order for same-sex couples to be allowed to marry suggests that it has been a while since you read that document. I would specifically like to direct your attention to the Ninth Amendment, which states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Slavery may have required the passage of the 13th Amendment in order to be abolished (although President Lincoln did take it on himself to proclaim the slaves in the Confederacy free, without an act of Congress, much less a Constitutional amendment). However, if that was the case, it was because the rights of enslaved people were specifically denied in the Constitution until that point.

The Constitution does not state that anyone has a right to marry. It says nothing about marriage whatsoever. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has affirmed 14 times that the freedom to marry is indeed a fundamental right, an affirmation with which I trust you agree, as you are not arguing that men and women may not marry each other. As a fundamental right, marriage can be limited only when there is a compelling state interest; for example, the state’s interest in protecting children means that children cannot marry nor be compelled to marry.

Men and women have been marrying each other in this country for over 200 years without the Constitution saying a word about their right to do so. The reason is obvious: the Ninth Amendment. So I would like a clearer explanation from you of why two women or two men cannot marry until they get a special mention in the Constitution.

Perhaps the issue is not that you are unaware of the Ninth Amendment, but that you are simply seeking to raise the bar for a right that displeases you, now that courts, legislatures, governors, and public referenda in many states have affirmed it.

Sincerely,

Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Two years ago I had a late-night brainstorm and stayed up completing a fun, entirely unsolicited project: a “hope calendar,” modeled on an advent calendar, on which each day between Thanksgiving and Christmas had a fact or question about the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). The idea was to use it during Guest at Your Table (GAYT), the several autumn weeks when we raise awareness of, and money for, the UUSC. It was especially geared toward families with kids from about age 8 to 14. I e-mailed it to our parents and teachers, made a bunch of copies of my calendar and put them out on the day of our GAYT kickoff, and had no idea whether anyone used it.

I also e-mailed it to the UUSC, which compiles ideas from congregations on how to promote Guest at Your Table. This fall, they asked if they could adapt my calendar, crediting me for the concept of course, and of course I said yes. Their very nifty version is here. I hope lots of families find it a useful way to learn about the work of this terrific organization.

San Francisco 2006 Pride Parade, by Dejan Čabrilo (licensed under Creative Commons)

Tomorrow thousands of hetero, cisgender people will show up on Market Street just to show up: to let LGBT people know, by their presence, that they support us and will stand by us. (Okay, most of them are also coming to be part of the fun and fabulosity. But support is part of it.) It’s hard to express how important that presence is. I can only say that our lives would feel lonelier, and the world scarier, if not for these allies.

I hope our presence at “Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s S.M.A.R.T. Tents” earlier tonight–that’s the actual official sign there, what an ego–gave the people in the tents, and the millions more around the country who have reason to fear they’ll end up in such places, the hope and strength that comes from knowing you have allies outside your own vulnerable community. That wasn’t exactly why I was there; I was there for the simple  reason that immigration justice groups in Phoenix asked us to be. But I know how good it would feel on Market Street in the morning, if I were at Pride, and I hope we gave immigrants to Arizona, and everywhere else in reach of the AP story, something of that feeling.

The past two weeks have been packed with preparations for our launch of the Unitarian Universalist Abolitionists at General Assembly (GA). The Abolition Team is proposing “Ending Slavery” as the next Congregational Study/Action Issue, and for that we need five speakers at tomorrow’s plenary, before the vote. We left one open speaker’s slot in case we met someone during GA who was so enthusiastic that they should be the fifth; I prepared a piece as a backup. Everyone was very happy with what I wrote, but I will not be reading it tomorrow morning, for the best reason: the Youth Caucus has chosen to support our CSAI, and so they are getting that spot. They make their decision by consensus, so it is momentous.

Here, then, is the piece I wrote. I called it “Bury Us Not in a Land of Slaves,” after the Frances Ellen Watkins poem whose close I find so moving. Harper was a Unitarian poet, abolitionist, and survivor of slavery.

There is a child in a cotton field. He is just a little older than my daughter. They could be schoolmates, or playmates. But he doesn’t play much; he doesn’t go to school. He works, without choice, without pay, far from his family. He is a slave.

He might have picked the cotton of the t-shirt I bought my daughter last month. She looks really cute in that shirt. He would, too, this child who could be her friend, this little boy in Uzbekistan or Texas. But he doesn’t have a new shirt, just as millions of other children harvest cocoa beans, but don’t eat the chocolate; or make bricks, but live in shanties made of tin and cardboard. I don’t want to raise my daughter to believe these children are any less deserving than she is. Yet I am trapped, she is trapped, all of us are trapped, in an economic system where slaves make many of the goods we use.

We know how to spring the trap. It’s called the abolition of modern slavery, and it is overdue. So is our involvement.

I hope with our vote today we will follow in the footsteps of the Unitarian and Universalist abolitionists of an earlier day. I hope no one will ever say of us what was said in 1851 when the other churches in a Massachusetts town rang their bells for freedom: “The bells of the Unitarian church, being clogged with cotton, would not sound.” We know that our true self-interest is served by freedom and justice for all. Let us act so that the generations to come will look back on this GA as the moment when the UUs claimed their better heritage and joined the 21st century abolition movement—or, better, helped to lead it—and made freedom ring out throughout this country and the world.

***

Whether or not the CSAI passes (we’re waiting for the result), we have done a lot at this GA to build a UU abolition movement, and we’ll go forward from here. If you want to know more, please:

write to info AT uuabolitionists DOT org, or

visit the UU Abolitionists website (now due for a post-GA update), or

“like” our Facebook page,

Or sign up for our Twitter feed, @uuabolition.

“The UU Occupier,” who describes himself as “a Green, an anarcho-pacifist, a secular humanist, and a Scot,” and is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, has begun a blog called “I Am a UU Occupier.” It’s great to have an addition to the UU and economic justice blogospheres. Check him out!

He also has a passion for prison reform, and blogs at Angolathree and is raising money for The Innocence Project here. UU Occupier, how about a leading a study group with me on The New Jim Crow?

Black History Month, day 25

Ella Baker, painted here by Robert Shetterly, was working for the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when students inspired by the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in began sitting in at segregated libraries, pools, and parks–as well as restaurants–in protest. Baker asked the SCLC for some start-up funds and put out a call for student leaders at her alma mater, Shaw University. The result was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating  Committee (SNCC), which, with Baker as one of their key mentors and guides, went on to organize the Freedom Rides, voter registration of people who were penalized harshly for registering (African-American voters often lost their jobs, or were assaulted, for registering), Freedom Schools, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. SNCC’s John Lewis gave one of the most fiery speeches at the 1963 March on Washington, and under Stokely Carmichael’s leadership it led the Black Power movement–and also dismissed the role of the women who had shaped it into such a force. In the meantime, Baker was forming yet another organization, the Southern Conference Educational Fund.

She had a genius for empowering others to take action, for leading them by helping them find their own authority. She distrusted reliance on prominent, charismatic leaders, saying, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” As she said of her earlier work developing the Young Negroes’ cooperative league, which aimed to give its members economic power through unity, “The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use.” It often is.

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