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Coming Home: Selma, Int'l Women's Day, LGBT Rights and Unitarian Universalism

03/06/2015 01:12 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

In 1965 when events that were part of the voting rights struggle unfolded in Selma, I was 6 years old. I must have seen parts of it on television. I don't remember. But I do remember that I was influenced by the Civil Rights movement.

This weekend is the 50th anniversary of the historic march on Selma. March 8 is also International Women's Day, a global day of equality was started in 1908 by the Socialist Party of America to demand better working conditions for female garment workers.

The first in my family to graduate from college, I was born to a feminist mother when she and my father where in their forties. In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012), I relate a conversation that I had with my mother when she was dying:

'I'd feel better about this if you were fifty. I thought if I waited, I could bring you into a better world. I really thought things would be better and in some ways they were. No one talked about racial equality twenty years before you were born, there was no environmental movement.'

'And no women's movement.' I met my mother's unwavering gaze.

My mother was an excellent story teller. One of the stories from her life that she told me was about Vera, a black lesbian she met in her licensed practice nurse training program. Vera was her own person, and she made quite an impression on my mother.

In telling me about Vera, my mother was telling me about her past and also about my future.

The Civil Rights movement and the movement for gay and lesbian rights were and are, in many ways, very different. There was some homophobia in the Civil Rights movement and racism in the gay rights movement -- despite considerable overlap. For one thing, we have some common enemies as seen in the ongoing struggle over same sex marriage in Alabama.

I was heartened by the response of the young people -- of all races -- who responded to the hate speech of the protestors by yelling, "We love you."

It is no coincidence that the country's first African American President was also our first President to embrace same sex marriage. In President Obama's last State of The Union address, I was proud to see the standing ovation at the President's mention of same-sex marriage and that it was led by Representative John Lewis, the important Civil Rights activist, who marched in the front of the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery.

My mother was a bible burning atheist and my religious background has always been secular. It was a surprise, almost even to me, when I joined a Unitarian Universalist church last year and then joined the lay ministers. My road to this faith involved my yoga teacher who is the musical director there, my partner who drums for her on occasion and a few old friends who are part of the congregation. My good feeling about the congregation was affirmed by The Unitarian Universalist Association which defines its faith as: "We are a house without walls, a congregation without spiritual boundaries. Simply put, we are a guided path towards a better you and a better world."

When I heard that the African American author, retired UU minister and noted UU historian, Mark D. Morrison-Reed was coming to the church in April, I was immediately interested. In his book The Selma Awakening, How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism, (2014, Skinner House Books), Morrison-Reed examines the UU faith and finds it lacking in its concerns with Civil Rights before the events of the freedom march at Selma catalyzed it.

As a newish Unitarian, it was disheartening for me to read that the Unitarian Universalist faith, except for pockets of true progressiveness, was not that evolved even in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. Yet, it was interesting to read how the emphasis on racial equality changed, especially after Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., called for people of faith to join the freedom march.

Morrison-Reed also writes that "The route to Selma was long. And the Second World War is the key to understanding the shift in race relations in America generally and among religious liberals in particular."

During this time period, many Unitarians held conventional views about race. They were white men, heterosexual (we presume), who were of their time. That is to say, they were also not evolved in terms of thinking about women, and gay rights was not yet even on the radar.

As Morrison-Reed writes:

For Unitarian Universalism, whose most progressive elements had long been champions of freedom in its broadest sense, Selma was a test. Did freedom mean freedom of belief and conscience? Or did it also include the civic, political and economic freedoms that the educated, middle-class, liberal religious constituency took for granted? Was this not a struggle for a nation's soul?

When Morrison-Reed reaches his conclusion, his analysis is poetic:

Integration triumphed in Selma the way that transcended the word's customer -- and spurious -- meaning. Genuine integration happens when parts form a whole; it is a melding rather than the subjugation of one by another. Some Unitarian Universalists achieved that melding during March 1965, when their values and practices meshed, when black and white stood together at the Selma Wall, sharing in struggle and song, discomfort and celebration -- needing one another. For this group of Unitarian Universalists, Selma was memorable because they experienced what it felt like to be whole, rather than experiencing the different aspect of the self as at odds with one another. The barriers of race and class, head and heart, were breached.

In Call to Selma, Eighteen Days of Witness (also from Skinner House Books), retired UU minister Richard D. Leonard defines Selma as:

a watershed event in our nation's history, perhaps the high point in our collective belief that we, together, could end racism and move ever closer to the ideal of the 'beloved community.' By 1965, that belief had been sorely tested. President Kennedy had been assassinated ...

This was the context in which I grew up. In reflecting on what Selma meant to me personally (as a white child, watching the Civil Rights movement from the safety of my living room -- as a child who would grow up to be a feminist and a lesbian), I realized that I grew up in an era that taught me that injustice is intolerable.

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