One of the most memorable moments in the film Selma shows the civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) along with other peaceful demonstrators standing at the steps of the Selma courthouse demanding the right to vote. Sheriff Jim Clark pokes her with his nightstick at which point Cooper punches him. She is tackled and thrown to the ground and handcuffed. A widely used photograph of the time shows Clark straddling Cooper as two deputies help him hold her down.
I had the honor of first meeting Annie Lee Cooper in November 1998 when she was in her late eighties (she died in 2010 as the age of 100). She had traveled with a diverse team of community leaders from Selma to take part in a weekend training program with people from other US cities organized by Hope in the Cities in Richmond, VA. During subsequent visits to Selma in the following years I met her again and visited her home.
Leading the group that came to Richmond was Councilman Yusuf Abdus-Salaam. On August 20, 1965 a white special deputy turned his shotgun on his 17 year-old sister, Ruby Sales. A young white seminarian, Jonathan Daniels (a classmate of our former rector Bob Hetherington), stepped in front of her and took the full blast. He was later named a saint in the Episcopal Church.
Yusuf Abdus-Salaam and Annie Lee Cooper were among a number of black and white Selmians who launched honest conversations on race, reconciliation and responsibility. They often met in private homes which was highly unusual in Selma at that time.
One member of the group was Bob Armstrong, an attorney and prominent member of the white community. He said, “I had never heard the concept of white privilege before I encountered Hope in the Cities. At one point I asked, ‘Why does it always have to be about race?’ An African American responded gently but firmly, ‘Maybe you’re not being honest with yourself. Maybe it is often about race.'”
Armstrong said he never forgot that moment of truth. “It opened my eyes to my own arrogance.” As a county district court judge he helped to launch an initiative to offer counseling, training and job placement for young fathers – mostly African American – who passed through the child support court.
There is a remarkably contemporary feel to
Ava DuVernay’s S
elma. We see an emotional Dr. King speaking to his congregation after an unarmed young black man is gunned down by two police officers. “How many fingers were on that trigger?” he asks. “Every white preacher who stands silent. Every Negro who stands back.”
“How many fingers were on that trigger?” King’s question has stayed with me in the days after seeing the movie. We might ask the same question today.
There is no excuse for police brutality and there is an obvious need for new approaches to training. The injustice in our criminal justice system cries out for reform. But the responsibility for the shocking events in places such as Ferguson, Cleveland or New York cannot rest on law enforcement alone.
It occurs to me that every act of separation is fundamentally an act of violence. Our refusal to integrate or properly fund our schools; our resistance (at least in Richmond) to enable public transportation to reach from inner cities to jobs in the suburbs; our NIMBY reaction to affordable housing in our neighborhoods; our retreat to gated communities; and our votes for politicians who support discriminatory sentencing or cut support for vital community services all contribute to alienation, distrust, fear, and resentment and provide fertile ground for the seeds of actual physical violence to flourish.
Our police are often faced with impossible situations that are not of their making. Practically every police chief in the country has pleaded for sensible gun control. The relentless campaigns of the NRA have ensured that law enforcement is dealing with an ever more heavily armed population. Poverty, lack of opportunity, and inadequate schools are in large measure the result of choices we as Americans have made to live our lives in separation from other human beings based on differences of race, class, religion or politics.
In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., can we choose to break down the walls of separation and learn to walk with one another?