Editorial: What are you willing to risk to bring about equality?

This story appears in the Selma march at 50 feature series. View the full series.

by NCR Editorial Staff

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"It is not a good thing, yet it is a wonderful thing that a man of the white race, a minister of religion, died in Alabama last week as a martyr for the rights of man," begins the lead editorial in the March 17, 1965, NCR. That issue of the paper carried extensive coverage from Selma, Ala. Bloody Sunday had happened 10 days before and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had issued a call to clergy around the country to join him in a second attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery.

The response to the call was tremendous. TIME magazine reported, "More than 400 white churchmen sped to Selma. Many turned up without so much as a toothbrush or a change of socks, and few had any idea of where they would stay." Among them were Catholic luminaries, like Msgr. Jack Egan of Chicago, Fr. James Groppi of Milwaukee, and Fr. Geno Baroni from Washington, D.C. Baroni was "a special correspondent" in Selma for NCR. And, of course, scores of Catholic women religious and laypeople answered the call.

Also answering the call was the subject of NCR's editorial, James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister working for the American Friends Service Committee in Boston. Reeb was jumped on the night of March 9 as he and two other white ministers left a black-owned café. Reeb was clubbed in the head and would die two days later, never regaining consciousness. He was 38 years old and was survived by a wife and four children.

The NCR editorial about Reeb, even with its dated language, still inspires.

"A man who opens himself to death, as did James Reeb, to relieve the oppression and the indignities visited upon other men, makes of himself a gift to all men. The savagery that took advantage of his openness must be despised, the loss and suffering must be deplored; but the gift must be accepted. ...

"The men who crushed James Reeb's skull know what value to set on the vote. To be able to vote is to have power. When sheriffs, state senators, governors in Alabama and Mississippi look upon Negroes and see them as voters and constituents, they will have to begin to see them as men. In this country and in our century, the power to vote is a dimension of humanity. Reeb died, then, so that others might live more abundantly."

With the Hollywood film "Selma" and various 50th anniversary commemorations, it is important not to give in to nostalgia about those times and causes. Months of unrest in places like Ferguson, Mo., remind those of us who needed the reminder that racism is as much a reality in 2015 as in 1965.

Honoring Reeb, we must remember that Reeb was in Selma at the invitation of and to support the African-American community. In honoring Reeb, we must also remember and honor the hundreds of black Alabama citizens whose lives were threatened for weeks before and months after the Selma protests.

Similarly, when we remember Kayla Mueller, we must also remember the 21 Coptic Christians killed in Libya and the thousands of refugees in Syria and Iraq; and with Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dorothy Stang, we must remember the 1,270 murdered rural workers in Brazil. We are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

The editorial from 1965 notes that in the civil rights struggle, sacrifice is inevitable, but "there are degrees of martyrdom volunteers must offer." Most of us will face less dramatic, but no less important challenges: Will we invite the stranger into our neighborhood, onto our block, into our school to play among our children? Will we commit public resources to bring equality to housing, education and employment? These threaten not our lives, but our status quo. "Do you think 300 years of subjection can be wiped out without somebody making a sacrifice?" the editorial asks and then: "What are you willing to risk?"

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 27-March 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: What are you willing to risk?.

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