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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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The First Question in a Catechism of Hope

“Can you tell me what Selma is?” This question was posed to me twice in the past few weeks by bright young graduate students in their twenties. One is studying for the ministry here at CTS. One is working on a PhD in energy policy at the University. Neither was an inattentive student growing up; neither is a disengaged citizen. But “Selma” on a movie marquee meant as little to them as “Into the Woods” might mean to someone unacquainted with Stephen Sondheim’s musical.

What’s Selma? The question astonished me and appalled me. How is it that these young people don’t know the story of one of the most pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement with its iconic pictures of stoic courage amid police brutality? How is it that they don’t know the name of the town forever associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965?

I know I’m getting old, that events that shaped my life and are vividly imprinted in my memory might as well be ancient history for another generation. But still. Some moments in our history have so shaped our lives that to be ignorant of them is to be diminished in some profound way. I didn’t live through the First or Second World Wars, or the Depression. But in my twenties I knew that they had laid out the terrain of the hopes and fears of my world in indelible ways.

I don’t blame my bright young friends. Somewhere their elders, or their public schools or the church failed them. We need to tell the stories. We can’t rely on popular culture to do this for us. After all, this weekend, the weekend of the annual celebration of King’s birth, far more people went to see “American Sniper” than “Selma.” But movies like Selma can help. And they can give us clues about how to tell the story.

Tell the honest story. The Civil Rights leaders, like the leaders in the White House and the Congress, were not one dimensional characters, but fraught with moral ambiguity, strategic uncertainties, and very real fears. It doesn’t make King any less visionary or Johnson any less politically courageous to know that they both had character flaws and were tempted by self-serving agendas. Human role models are more helpful to us than cartoon characters.

Tell the whole story. Selma was, in part, the story of white allies from the north who heard King’s call to come and march. And Selma was also, in part, the story of Black Civil Rights leaders from across the nation who came to lead the climactic events of the voting rights struggle. But Selma was, in a more profound sense, the story of ordinary people who lived in Selma long before the marches and who would have to live in Selma long after the marches were over, who risked everything for the movement. To focus on King or Rabbi Heschel or Archbishop Iakavos is to tell part of the story, but only part of it. And it is to miss the true heroes who often had the most to lose for their courage.

Tell the honest story. Tell the whole story. Tell the story to inspire hope. Much about Selma was ugly, brutal, violent, degrading. The honest story and the whole story can never be fairy tales. The triumphant speech in Montgomery does not erase the deaths of four sweet little girls in a Birmingham church. Hope is not about a make believe, fairy tale world. It’s about a promised world that some are willing to die for. Selma inspires hope that things can change. It confronts the discouraged and the cynical with a world of possibility.

Those of us who remember Selma, who marched with King, who watched the events unfold on our televisions, who listened to Johnson’s speech in Congress or King’s speech in Montgomery, who felt the arc of history bend, will be tempted to mark the 50th anniversary reminiscing. It is good to remember. But it is not enough. We need to tell the story. Go see “Selma.” But don’t go alone. Take a young person with you.

What is Selma? It can be a discouraging question to hear for Baby Boomers tempted to lament the amnesia of a younger generation. But it can also be the first question in a profound catechism of hope. What is Selma? In a small Alabama town, poor descendants of slaves, tired of being denied the dignity of full citizenship, courageously began to organize to demand their right to vote. . . .

John H. Thomas
January 22, 2015

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