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Churches: The Selma Spirit

3 minute read

In all, nearly 6,000 bishops, rabbis, ministers, priests and nuns felt the call to march in Alabama with Martin Luther King. Last week, most of them were back home, wondering what happens next to “the spirit of Selma.” Was it, in effect, something of a spiritual lark—a chance for conscience-stricken clergymen to win their merit badges in the civil rights revolution? Or was it a genuinely charismatic event, justifying the euphoria of the Rev. Stanley Hallett, Director of Planning for the Church Federation of Greater Chicago?

“It was a breakthrough into a whole new spirit,” he says, “a sense of being part of a community at a level and depth that we’ve never known before.”

Ecumenical Effect. So far, clergymen are cautiously optimistic that the spirit will last. Now, says the Rev. Robert Spike of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race, “we face the question as to how we can put flesh on the content of this commitment.” Spike believes that there were “a lot of foolish, wildcat activities” at Selma, and some clerics, notably Roman Catholic and Episcopal bishops in Alabama, wondered whether men of the cloth should have been there at all.

The Rev. Myron Cole of Hollywood, a past president of the Southern California Council of Churches, is troubled that “a good many of our men have come back from Selma saying, ‘I was there, why weren’t you?’ ”

But in talking about Alabama, says the Rev. Harvey Hollis of the Denver Area Council of Churches, “we always arrive back here.” The most striking aspect of the Selma spirit is the consensus, expressed by Episcopal Rector Stephen Pressey of Shelby, Ohio, that “ministers are missing the boat if all they do is agitate.” Instead of dreaming about bigger and better marches, church leaders appear to have returned with renewed zeal to tackle the major problems of the Negro in the North—education, housing and job opportunity. And, thanks to the astonishingly wide interfaith representation in Alabama—from conservative Lutheran to Orthodox Jew, from civil rights veterans to ministers who had never done more than sermonize on race—they are doing so on a broadly ecumenical basis.

A Burst of Action. In Rhode Island last week, state leaders of every major church group petitioned the legislature to pass a fair-housing bill this year. An amendment strengthening Colorado’s housing act was approved by the state legislature last week, thanks largely to strong clerical pressure. This summer, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York is vastly expanding a tutorial program in Harlem, run by professional educators, to help stem the school dropout rate; the schools will be open to children of all faiths, will operate in 30 centers.

Church leaders are beginning to scrutinize the monetary aspects of race, recognizing that “the color of integration is green.” In some Catholic dioceses, churches will soon demand that contractors and suppliers not only show compliance with federal fair-employment standards but take “affirmative action” in providing jobs for Negroes. “The church has matured to the point where it at least perceives the depth of the crisis,” says Eugene Callahan of Chicago’s Conference on Religion and Race. “A lot of the impetus in the use of money, power and community action will be a direct result of activities like the march in Selma.”

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