A Lenten Reflection on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday

From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. Psalm 72:14

Reflection and photos by Aundreia Alexander, Associate General Secretary

I was in the number, one of the tens of thousands that converged on Selma, Alabama, a small city, and but for the occasion that brought us all there, relatively unknown. We were there to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March for voting rights and freedom, from Selma to Montgomery, a turning point event in American history. Some have incorrectly referred to this annual pilgrimage as a reenactment; we would never want to recreate the lived experience of broken bones, cracked skulls, bruised bodies, and blood soaked pavements. We do, however, honor those who walked before us, and try to channel the genuine fear of those, whose spirits were shaken but never broken, who were the foot soldiers of that first 50 mile journey.

The original march was disrupted on March 7, 1965, on what has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. This horrific yet transformative incident occurred during the holiest of seasons for the Christian faith. The Lenten season is a time of self-reflection and repentance.

Christians all over the world first prepare themselves by exercising spiritual disciplines like fasting and prayer. And from Palm Sunday to Easter we symbolically journey with Jesus to Golgotha. We pray with him and contemplate the depth of our faith at Gethsemane. We contemplate his persecution, humiliation and betrayal on Maundy Thursday. On Good Friday we hang with Him on the cross and experience the great chasm between us and God. Some of us even wonder if we have been forsaken by the same God. We thirst for the Living Water and when Jesus takes his last breath, we too give over our spirit, our doubts and fears to God. And then we wait for the miracle of resurrection.

It was in this holy Christian season fifty years ago, that people of faith met at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan (an organization that, by the way, proclaims its grounding in Christian moral values). They were Christian people armed with courage and conviction, who believed that all humanity is created in the image of God. They believed that everyone should be given equal rights and access to that which was foundational to pursuing life, liberty and happiness. With the spiritual fortitude of Jesus heading towards Golgotha they marched.

They were met at the foot of the bridge by others, many with whom they shared a faith. In this season of repentance and self-reflection the marchers came face to face with many Christians garbed in full military police regalia-riot gear, guns, tear gas, and billy clubs. The marchers were flanked by fellow Christians among the civilians jeering at them, spitting on them, and hurling objects at them. The marchers were attacked, beaten and gassed.

These same Christians, who met face to face on the bridge, will go on through the remainder of the Lenten season. During Holy Week they will journey with Jesus to Golgotha, witness the crucifixion, and on Easter Sunday proclaim the healing power of the resurrection in their separate communities, separate schools, and separate churches.

As I stood among those gathered at the commemoration of this great moment, I listened to President Obama and Congressman John Lewis, both persons whose very presence symbolized 50 years of progress. I also stood next to Michael Brown’s father and members of the staff from the Department of Justice, both symbolic of the racial disparity and injustice that still pervades society. I had just read the scathing DOJ report on Ferguson policing, documenting the entrenched racist practices of the police department and the municipality officials. I was still reeling from another report revealing that there would be no federal charges brought against Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown. In the midst of the crowd I see signs saying, “Hands up don’t shoot”, “I can’t breathe”, and “Black Lives Matter”. I also see a small sign that reminds us that, “Jesus Saves.”

It is the season of Lent, a period of self-reflection and repentance – a time, set aside, to grow closer to God. It is a time when we journey with Jesus to Golgotha, but Jesus also journey’s with us. Jesus was jeered at and spit upon. Jesus was persecuted and prosecuted by a flawed judicial system. Jesus experienced the agony of losing breath. Jesus died with His hands up.

It is a time for self-reflection, a time for repentance, and a time to remember as we journey with Jesus. We wait for the miracle of reconciliation, justice and peace in the Resurrection.

Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for shared ecumenical witness among Christians in the United States. The NCC's 37 member communions -- from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches -- include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.

NCC News contact: Steven D. Martin: 202.412.4323 or [email protected]