Sermon from January 20: Parting the Waters (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–

As you approach Kelly Ingram Park on the outskirts of downtown in Birmingham, Alabama, there is nothing much to distinguish it. Filling a full city block, it’s planted with trees and crossed by meandering paths. It’s not until you enter and catch sight of the sculptures planted along the paths that you get a hint of the tumultuous events that were centered there, now half a century ago.

One depicts two children, life size, on one side of the path, looking stolidly through bars representing a jail on the other side of the path. Another depicts a water cannon on a tripod aimed at two children against a wall, one crouched over, the other facing the wall with her arms held in front of her, her back turned to the cannon.

The most arresting may be the sculpture that appears on the cover of your order of service depicting guard dogs leaping aggressively from walls on each side of the path with barely enough space for a person to walk between.

Last fall this park was the first stop on the Living Legacy Tour of Civil Rights sites of the South that I took part in. As one for whom most of the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s were mostly snatches of news clips reaching my pre-teen eyes or ears, it was a good place to start. Fifty years after those formative times we have lost many of the concrete reminders of what was going on and what was at stake then. But Kelly Ingram Park remains a place where history in its most graphic form is in our faces demanding to be known.

So, in this month of beginning when we also celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted to focus our reflection on Birmingham, a place where the Civil Rights struggle was reborn into a movement that transformed our nation and continues to challenge us today.

Protests against racial discrimination had their beginning in Birmingham in the early 50s, when a petition seeking the hiring of blacks as police officers was denied. In 1956, a newly formed Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, headed by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, following up on the successful Montgomery bus boycott launched an action to integrate city buses there. It got nowhere, though. The leaders were arrested, and the powerful council headed by Bull Conner ruled that continued segregation was necessary to prevent “friction” between the races.

A high profile racial killing and repeated Klan cross burnings made many wary of going further. Over the next six years 17 black homes or churches were bombed with no arrests made, giving the city the nickname of “Bombingham.”

It wasn’t until January 1963, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, that national civil rights groups came together to build a coordinated strategy for dealing with segregation in Birmingham. Most actions up until then had taken place in small towns. Birmingham was a complex and vibrant city, a center of the steel industry, and, despite small town ways, more cosmopolitan. Birmingham also posed a challenge in logistics – the recruiting and directing of many people – and enlisting allies. The local black clergy association, for one, was deeply suspicious of the group.

But the issue was heating up. The arrival of Freedom Riders in May 1961 brought renewed attention to segregation, and in May 1962 college students conducted a voter registration drive and “selective buying” campaign that severely reduced black purchases. Determined to move forward, a gathering that King chaired in Savannah, Georgia launched what became known as Project C, for Confrontation – a campaign of boycotts, marches and nonviolent resistance to start in Birmingham that spring.

Birmingham itself, though, was in transition. The city’s three-member council was being replaced by a nine-member council and mayor. Many moderate whites and their black allies saw this as a moment to end the Bull Conner era.

In the March election, just as the desegregation actions were beginning, Conner and his opponent, Albert Boutwell, were tied in the election for mayor. The moderates urged King to delay any actions, fearing a blow-up that would work to Conner’s favor. In the April run-off, Conner was defeated, but incredibly he and the other two commissioners refused to step down, leaving a divided government and Conner still in charge of the police.

The protests began the next day with lunch counter sit-ins, but most of the counters just closed down. Protests in subsequent days sputtered as well. Little was reported about them in the news media, and Boutwell, the new mayor, urged people of both races to, in his words, “calmly ignore what is not being attempted in Birmingham.”

Still, King was determined to go through with his plans. So, on April 12, Good Friday, he joined a protest march, violating a city injunction prohibiting him from leading demonstrations, and was arrested and jailed. In jail, he learned in a phone call to his wife, Coretta, that President Kennedy had called to ask her about him. But he was discouraged to find himself criticized in much of the national media as a radical, with Birmingham’s Mayor Boutwell, of all people, being quoted as calling for “mutual respect and understanding.”

But what really irked him was a letter published on the front page of the Birmingham newspaper from what are described as eight “leading Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clerics” attacking the protests as “untimely”, saying they would “incite hatred and violence” and that such “extreme measures” were not justified.

These were the very people who at some level King had seen as allies, leaders who had objected to Governor George Wallace’s declaration of “segregation, now and forever!” at his inauguration only four months before. For him, it was an awakening, a moment of clarity. As he began scribbling on margin of the newspaper he discovered a new voice, a more universal, prophetic voice. He framed his indignation as personal disappointment, but the point he made was broader. He was zeroing in on the tamed and temporizing church, the one that affirmed high principle, but stepped away when the principle was most clearly at stake. Against the claims of clerics that he was creating tension, he invited them to observe something that from their place of personal privilege they had missed.

Those who were marching, he reminded them, “are not the creators of the tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” And leaving no question of how strongly he felt, he turned to a vivid metaphor, comparing racism to a boil that, rather than be ignored, “must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light before it can be cured.” There was no turning back now. The stakes were too high.

Just how high became clear days after King was released from jail. Other movement leaders had been training high school students in non-violent methods, and when King returned they urged a bold shift in strategy. Rather than seeking to enlist fearful adults, it would be the children who would lead the next wave of marches.

On May 2nd at around 1 p.m. a group of about 50 high school students marched two abreast out of 16th Street Baptist Church singing “We Shall Overcome” as bystanders watched in Kelly Ingram Park across the street. They were promptly arrested by police for violating court injunctions and were loaded into paddy wagons. But no sooner was one group arrested than another group emerged from the church.

And so it continued throughout the day. By nightfall some 600 children were in police custody and the city was running out of places to put them. So, the next day the police strategy shifted from arrest to deterrence. Bull Conner ordered fire hoses brought in and as the children approached he warned them to turn back, “or you might get wet.” They did.

Many of the first group retreated after being soaked, but others just sat on the sidewalk and endured the spray. So, Conner ordered water cannons that forced the spray from two hoses into a single nozzle – devices said to be capable of stripping the bark off trees at 100 feet. Television cameras captured the spray from those hoses propelling children tumbling over and over down the street, as if in a high wind.

Meanwhile, organizers directed other groups of protesting children away from the hoses, outflanking firefighters with hoses. So, Conner ordered K-9 units to rush the demonstrators with dogs. City leaders and pundits criticized march leaders for putting children in danger, but King replied that these people showed no such tender solicitude when it came to the many deprivations these children endured due to segregation.

A couple of days of pandemonium ended with a truce of sorts between the march leaders and the city, but the tide had turned. As the protests continued, white business leaders began meeting secretly to talk about how to end this stand-off, and eventually King was brought quietly into the conversation. After several tense days, a settlement was announced that would integrate Birmingham’s public facilities – rest rooms, water fountains, lunch counters – release prisoners of the movement who remained in jail and set up a biracial committee to hear ongoing concerns.

The agreement left much to be done. Several bombings followed, including the home of King’s brother, A.D., and the motel where King usually stayed, followed by some rioting in response.

But the agreement held, and, what must have been sweet in King’s ears, a month later President Kennedy gave his first address on the subject of civil rights, and his words echoed King’s rhetoric in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail:

“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it,” Kennedy said, “And we cherish our freedom here at home. But are we to say to the world – and much more importantly, to each other – that this is the land of the free, except for negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except for Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect for Negroes?” Extemporaneously, he added, “we owe them, and we owe ourselves, a better country.”

In one of the sad ironies of the Civil Rights movement, among those listening in his car radio to Kennedy’s address that night was Medger Evers, a field worker for the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers’ wife had let the children stay up late to let them hear what their father thought of the speech. When Evers arrived home, he had barely gotten out of his car before he was shot with a deer rifle; he died shortly afterward.

King went on in August to give his electrifying speech in the March on Washington, but in Birmingham, controversy still surrounded desegregation. In September President Kennedy federalized National Guard troops to protect black students after a federal judge ordered that they be admitted to three public schools.

Only five days later, at 16th Street Baptist Church as preparations were being made for Youth Sunday – “The Love that Forgives” was the topic – a bomb exploded in a stairway of the church leading to the sanctuary and four girls preparing to take part in the service were killed. The city was stunned, and at a service where King spoke remembering the girls, 8,000 people attended, including 800 pastors of both races. A small black marker outside of 16th Street Baptist inscribed with the names of the murdered girls may be the most haunting memorial of the Civil Rights Era in Birmingham today.

50 years later, then, we are left wondering what this transformative time, only about eight months at a pivotal moment in American history, has to teach us.

Audre Lorde’s searing poem serves as a reminder of what was and remains at stake for people in such oppressed circumstances. It’s a perspective few of us here have ever glimpsed, of living on a shoreline where the simplest decisions – where to step, whom to talk to – are potentially life threatening, where fear is wielded by those in power as a weapon to silence, fear, even, of the rising and setting of the sun, of full or empty stomachs, fear that those we love will be snatched from us, fear that our voices will put us in danger or be misconstrued, yet knowing that silence perpetuates the soul-killing reality of their lives.

In the end, as Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, as the students pouring from 16th Street Baptist Church understood, it was better to speak, since as far as their oppressors were concerned, they were never meant to survive.

This is the awakening that King experienced while writing his letter from the Birmingham City Jail. The seeming moderation of the white clergy was in the end a repudiation of the black populace and their claim that their very being was at stake in the segregated South. Their call for order in the face of injustice and humiliation made clear where they stood on this crucial question of survival.

Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul.

And what’s remarkable is that facing that existential threat, King elected not to dismiss or demean his critics. Instead, he appealed to them to look to their hearts, to find that vital and hopeful essence within them and then see the same essence in those with standing up to high-power hoses and police dogs, to feel the deep human connection to each of them.

Return to who you are, Return to what you are.

Return to where you are born and reborn again.

By that essential nature – the light of human conscience, he called it – he appealed to them, too, to awaken, to see in these marchers people of dignity and worth, brothers and sisters in a struggle for freedom.

Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul.

Sad to say, it was an imaginative leap too large for most to make. And so, while the genius and moral strength of the Civil Rights movement won many victories for an oppressed people, we are left even today with a kind of spiritual deadness that pervades many conversations around race.

It may be, as Naomi Shihab Nye says, that too few of us have learned the “tender gravity” of kindness. Perhaps it is because we have not experienced or acknowledged the losses and the sorrows that have piled up around us, experiences, she tells us, that teach kindness as the deepest thing inside.

Amid all this tumult, the tragedies that continue to multiply, it may be that it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, kindness that makes no judgment, that simply sees in the other, one like ourselves.

It’s a continuing legacy from the struggles of Birmingham: that we might step beyond our comfort and risk coming to know the larger truth of our oneness as one people.

May it be so.