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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.


(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.

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