Sunday, January 18, 2015

Not a Victory March

"Darkness and Light"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend many people will be going off to view the popular movie, Selma - a story about the celebrated civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama that took place some 50 years ago.

I just saw a TV news report about a group of local college students who had organized a march from their campus to a nearby movie theater as a way of commemorating what happened in Selma- a good thing to do on the way to see the movie. As the students marched together along the street, some were locking arms, everyone was smiling and waving, passing cars were honking their horns. It looked like a homecoming parade, the kind of thing you do when the team wins the big football game.

As I watched these students "marching together" I wondered to myself if they thought that what they were doing even remotely resembled what actually happened in Selma some 50 years ago - after all none of these marchers were even alive back then.  

In fact my guess is that many people today may think of the Selma march as some sort of grand parade. The popular pictures of the famous Selma march usually depict Dr, King walking arm in arm with noteworthy religious leaders and civic authorities leading a procession of thousands of people from all across America. As they walked across the Selma Bridge on their way to Montgomery, everyone is singing together, "We shall overcome," "My eyes have seen the glory...his truth is marching on." 

Many people today remember Selma as a glorious "victory march" that led to the establishment of voting rights for African Americans and a new sense of justice and equality in the country. 

The truth is that a few weeks before this celebrated victory parade, there was another march in Selma only that one wasn't anywhere near as victorious.  

When Dr. King eventually walked across that bridge along with those thousands of people, they were all protected by the Army and the National Guard.  However, that's not what happened to those first protesters who walked across that bridge just a few weeks earlier. That first Selma march was marked by extreme violence - it was brutal and bloody. The protesters were repelled by powerful fire hoses set on them, they were attacked by police dogs, beaten by policemen, thrown into prison - some were even killed. 

And yet, it was this "first" Selma march that woke people up to the brutality and injustice of what was going on in the South. People across America were appalled at the pictures and news reports of what happened on that first march - it was a call to action. There would have been no grand parade with Dr. King at the lead, no thousands of protesters from all across America, no voting rights, no greater justice were it not for those who sacrificed so much a few weeks earlier in that first Selma march. 

I am reminded of a lyric from one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs:

Love is not a victory march,
it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.

As I see it, any spiritual path follows the path of love and so it will almost always go against the grain of popular culture. The spiritual path leads in the direction of compassion, equal justice, human dignity. However, the popular path flows in the direction of self gratification where those who "have" lord it over those who "have not." The two paths will inevitably clash. The path of love is not a nice parade, and while we may sing Hallelujah along way, the price of victory is never easy. 

If we walk along the path of love we should expect opposition from the status quo. If we march along  the way of love,  police dogs and prison cells may be the toll we pay for walking on that path; and if that doesn't happen, maybe we are going in the wrong direction.   


  1. I remember the Civil Rights movement vividly. It was not a walk in the park. It was about hatred and injustice. It was about the sickness and perversity of a society that allowed full human rights to white people and denied them to black people but were willing to send the black people to war to fight for freedom they could not have if and when they returned home from fighting for the white race to remain free.

    As a boy I remember the unfairness of Bull Connor his fire hoses and his dogs, his brutal subordinates with night sticks. Later I remember the 3 young men who were killed and Medgar Evers shot while going into his home. I remember the sit ins.

    The history of Selma presents a synonym for racist bigotry and the grossest violations of human rights since 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian' period of civil life in the United States. It was not a walk in the park, it was the revelation of pure evil on the part of the city of Selma.

    Today it's the homeless and mentally ill and the poor who are in need of civil rights being restored because today Bull Connor clones are alive in almost every city and subject to being killed and abused by them.

    1. Yes, thank you. The march for justice is hardly over..and maybe has only just begun in our own country.