History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
“History says, Don’t hope,” the poet Seamus Heaney tells us. But sometimes, perhaps “once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme.”
I was blessed, early in my life, to witness such a tidal wave, to see the injustices of the segregated Virginia society in which I grew up weakened by Brown v. Board in 1954, then challenged head-on by the Civil Rights movement that gained force in the years that followed. The issues seemed to me unambiguous; the compelling nature of what was right appeared both unquestionable and unavoidable.
Justice is born not only of hope. Justice makes demands beyond the patience and passivity Heaney portrays in his moving lines. When I leave this church today, I will fly to Alabama to join the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march at Selma. I was there 50 years ago, as a 17–year-old college freshman who skipped her midterms – – this did not help my GPA – – because I felt I had no choice. I had watched on a flickering black and white TV as John Lewis and hundreds of others were clubbed and gassed on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge as they sought their constitutional rights. I heard Martin Luther King declare that “No American is without responsibility.” I had felt the burden of that responsibility from the time I was small—growing up with the privileges of whiteness in the racial hierarchy of 1950s Virginia. So when King urged Americans to affirm that obligation by joining a renewed march, I knew I had to go. It was a moral imperative. I could do more than hope; I could act; I did not have to await a tidal wave; I could be part of it.
I am not sure there has ever been a moment of such absolute and powerful moral clarity in my life since. Perhaps it is a function of aging—everything comes to seem more complicated, more amenable to compromise. As we used to say in those days: never trust anyone over thirty. Or maybe we have learned in the aftermath of those heady triumphs—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965—how justice requires perennial struggle. No victory is absolute; we have to keep our eyes on the prize to hold on—even to the Voting Rights Act itself, which is being threatened and eroded at the same time we are celebrating its passage.
But I will never forget that I was given a moment where I could help make hope and history rhyme. And I go to Alabama to remember as well those for whom it was far more than just a moment, or a series of abandoned midterms. I go in honor of Martin Luther King, of Hosea Williams, of James Bevel, of Diane Nash, of Andrew Young, of Jimmie Lee Jackson, of John Lewis and of so many others who have devoted their lives to the cause of justice and freedom.
As the movie Selma was being filmed, veteran Civil Rights leader Andrew Young was explaining to the actors who would be playing these heroic figures how they might understand what motivated their characters. “You must ask,” Young explained, “What are you willing to die for?” and then, “Live for that.”
I go to Selma to honor these lives—and all lives and times of such meaning and purpose.