The day I participated in the historic “Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama,” I asked myself, “What was my true motivation to participate in this life changing event?” Is it because I, as an American Assyrian teenager, grew up in South Central Los Angeles where my closest friends were Negro? Is it Mrs. Bailey, our African American next door neighbor, whose tender love cared for my dying mother, Catherine?
The clincher, perhaps, came for me when I saw the bruised face of a seminary classmate, a voting rights volunteer, on the front page of the LA Times newspaper. He was being attacked by, and pushed around by local law enforcement persons and threatened by their dogs.
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Television was the main event, and it began to matter what I saw during the days and weeks before Selma. I saw Negro children killed by bomb blasts, and my fellow Americans being sprayed by great water hoses like helpless human beings.
Human dignity would ultimately win the battle. The great motivator for human dignity was Martin Luther King Jr. His message became the conscience of American Clergy when he wrote a letter from his Birmingham Jail to religious leaders of the United States of America who were sitting on the fence of non-participation of the civil rights crisis. Ministers, priests and rabbis were hesitant to get involved. We thought we needed more time to let this festering issue resolve itself.
In 1964, a year before Selma, I heard Dr. King speak to a throng of students and guests on a lawn on the campus of UCLA. He spoke about time and how time did not have a conscience and waiting for things to resolve themselves would not happen unless we begin to march with the beat of God’s Kairos. He said, “Now is the opportune moment.” His eloquent preaching, with the passion of a prophet, and a loving God of justice, tugged at my heart and penetrated my conscience.
I waited with thousands of clergy in America for this civil rights thing to resolve itself. It was 1965, and our nation was being torn apart with the war in Vietnam. Students were protesting the war and some were even killed during the protests. Our children who were taught in our churches and temples to love and do not kill, were now doing exactly what we taught them.
Many of us began to protest the war as we saw it on our TV. The broken bodies of our children on the battlefields and swamps of Vietnam, and at the same time, saw the burning of black churches and the murder of our black children.
Then the horror of Black Sunday, March 7, 1965, pushed me to the edge as the Selma marchers were brutally attacked when they attempted to peacefully cross the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
It was 1965. I was a Christian pastor in a small, historical and growing Presbyterian Church in Port Hueneme, California. I had already made a significant impact in our Navy community working with the delinquent youth and serving on the Grand Jury. My congregation grew from 40 members to over 200 members during this explosive, but short time.
Major moral movements began to emerge in our American society: race and racism; exploitation and environmentalism; government and misuse of power; war and imperialism; and sex and sexism. The Civil Rights Movement became the most important because of its direct impact upon churches and their members. The Civil Rights Movement brought church members, and especially clergy, into active participation.
What I was soon to learn was that a price would be paid by alienating a large portion of the church constituency. It would have a personal impact upon me.
As I reflect in this memoir, I saw myself as a restless 32-year-old agitated pastor, as I saw God’s hand of judgment coming upon America. I loved my country that welcomed my parents from the HATE of the Ottoman Turks who were murdering Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Turkey, even as ISIS is murdering them today.
My restlessness turned to resolve when Martin Luther King invited the clergy persons of America to “come and be with me and usher in a new era.” The word “come” was a powerful urging. It was the same word Jesus said to the dead Lazarus: “COME.” In Aramaic the word is ‘Qum.’ “Rise up! Get up from your sleep and be raised up from your hesitancy.”
Click here for John’s story — 50 Years Since Selma: The Dream Marches On