Sustaining the Momentum III

03/16/2015 11:11 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015


The Jubilee of the Selma marches of 1965 attracts veterans of those marches who are now labeled "foot soldiers" in the Civil Rights experiences in the small Alabama city. (See my 2013 Sightings, "Selma: Sustaining the Momentum Still," in "Sources" today. The 2013 report took off from my first article with that name in The Christian Century in 1965.)

On March 7 (2015), some news outlets said that 88,000 were on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge and its ramps, which makes it "ancient history" in contemporary news cycles. It was amply covered in various media, so I need not amplify or provide late details.

Nor do I need to stress the "religion in public life" aspect, which calls for attention in Sightings. The 1965 events were religious to the core, as were most efforts connected with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its kin. "Reverend" prefaced the names of most leaders then, and Protestant-Catholic-Jewish clergy and leaders were up front last week, as always.

My own links to the Selma commemorations in 2013 and, again this year, were the local African-American rooted-and-branched Concordia College of Selma, its larger soul-brother in these efforts from before 1965 to the present, Valparaiso University, and more. I hung out some with students from a half-dozen other church-related institutions, also greeting students from suburban Chicago's Dominican University.

Let me add that my personal hero in this context, from 1965 to the present, is not a "Reverend" but is Congressman John Lewis, who led us, bloodied though he was on "Turnaround Tuesday" after "Bloody Sunday" so long ago.

To come to the point of relevance: religious energies designed to help "sustain the momentum," focus on two fronts.

The first, of course, is Civil Rights. All of this year's speakers and conversation-partners stressed the great gains made since the mid-sixties, mixed with genuine concern that these Rights, connected by most citizens with self-evidently divine sanctions, not be blunted by current political interests against them.

The other front, less obvious but just as real to Selma folks, other "Black Belt" residents, and their spiritual and citizenly cousins nationally, is the unfinished business with the sub-text or para-text in Selma then and now: the need for "equality" of opportunity and support in the face of startling inequality and obvious signs of poverty.

Son John Marty who, with his brothers, had his first personal experience with Dr. King as early as 1961, chose to re-attend. He's a state senator in Minnesota, highly focused on issues of social justice, and we gathered mental notes together.

As memorable as the hours spent supporting Civil Rights on the Bridge, was John's and my walk down Selma's main street. Boarded shops, deserted buildings, devastation of the landscape and cityscape formed the scene -- as it does in so many other cities. Selma is now 80 percent African-American, its poverty rate is appalling and opportunities there are few despite some good efforts by local leaders.

Signs of a positive spirit were evident at a big (and long, celebrity-laden and locally-motivated) "Unity Breakfast" before the Bridge ceremonies. We heard from and sometimes talked to and often about the role of churches, and were cheered especially by the interests of young people.

"Sustaining the Momentum" was and is a good theme for Civil Rights causes; "Gaining some Momentum" condenses for us the next call. Civil (and especially Voting Rights) is a rather simply diagnosed and defined issue.

But truly assuring that all people in this rich nation can have access to and enjoyment of Eating Rights and Shelter Rights and Health-Care Rights is still ahead of us. Selma observances each year inspire some sustainable hopes.


Marty, Martin E. and Dean Peerman. "Selma: Sustaining the Momentum." Christian Century, March 9, 1965, Editorial Correspondence.

Marty, Martin E. "Selma: Sustaining the Momentum Still." Sightings, March 11, 2013.

For news coverage of Martin Marty's participation in the Selma march of 1965 and of his return to Selma with his son, Sen. John Marty, for 50th anniversary events, see Slavik, Rachel. "Original Selma Marcher To Return With State Senator Son." CBS Minnesota, March 6, 2015, Local.

Image: Ceremonial crossing of the Edmund Pettus bridge led by the Obamas and the Bushes on March 7, 2015, Selma, Alabama; Credit: Lawrence Jackson / Official White House Photo, Wikimedia Commons.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at