The 2nd century church father Tertullian, speaking of those slain by the sanguineous Roman Empire, once wrote: “we multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed.” Tertullian was commenting on a peculiar trend that perplexed outside observers and frustrated civic authorities: even as scores of early believers were publicly killed by Roman rulers, the Christian faith was replicating like wildfire.
This trend – innocent death fueling fledgling ideological movements – is not unique to the spread of Christian doctrine; proximity to the death of innocents is a radicalizing force, and the blood of martyrs continues to water nascent religious, political, and social movements across the globe. The disappearing of Hispaniola’s four Mirabal sisters by then-dictator Rafael Trujillo served as the catalyst for the revolution that eventually ousted el jefe. John Brown’s ill-fated insurrection and hanging nationally incited the furor of both slavers and abolitionists, universally escalating the tensions that would lead to the civil war.
While all people can appreciate the lives of their fallen, through the centuries martyrs have also held a special place in the hearts of those of us who worship a murdered God. Christians can point to a plethora of figures throughout scripture and history whose lives were ended in brave resistance to tyranny and wickedness. We claim thousands, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned and executed for openly defying Hitler’s Nazi Germany, St. Stephen, who was put to death by the Sanhedrin, Martin King, the Baptist preacher and civil rights advocate whose life was ended by an assassins’ bullet, and Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant rabbi who was publicly tortured and killed by a first century lynch mob.
In March of 1965, fifty years ago this weekend, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King held a march from Selma to Montgomery to help secure voting rights for all Americans. While black Americans technically had the right to vote, a swath of laws including poll taxes and literacy tests – as well as extra-legal organized terrorism – was designed to disenfranchise black citizens from voting, and these methods essentially nullified any existing protections under law.
This weekend, with a crowd of over seventy thousand, I traveled to Selma to learn the stories of this movement, and its saints and devils. I kneeled on Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Dr. King stopped to pray and discern the Spirit’s calling on “Turnaround Tuesday.” I tread the ground where vigilantes enacted vicious revenge upon the innocent, stood where, half a century prior, Alabama State Troopers brutalized peaceful marchers in an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The media present at Bloody Sunday amplified the plight of Southern blacks far beyond local enclaves of support. Following these and further acts of violence, thousands of supporters flocked to Selma from across the country. As TIME magazine remarked, “rarely in human history has public opinion reacted so spontaneously and with such fury.”
Sadly, not all who joined Dr. King’s march survived. Today, I want to share the stories of four of Selma’s martyrs, whose deaths drew similar social outrage and attention to the atrocities being committed in Alabama. Their killings raised the national consciousness of the burgeoning civil rights movement, and should be remembered today as nothing less than martyrs:
Jimmie Lee Jackson was a 27 year old Baptist church deacon and army veteran who was shot at point blank range by an Alabama State Trooper who was not charged for his crime until 2007. Jackson died protecting his grandfather and his mother from attacks at the hands of police. His death is said to have been the final straw that catalyzed the Selma march.
Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopalian seminarian who stepped in front of a Special Deputy’s shotgun blast to save the life of Ruby Sales, a 17 year old girl with whom he was jailed. King called his act “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.” In 1991, the Episcopal church formally canonized Daniels as a martyr, and he is remembered each year along with all those who died in the civil rights movement. Ruby Sales has since gone on to attend Episcopal Divinity School and start a nonprofit as a human rights advocate in Washington D.C.
Jim Reeb was a Unitarian minister, educated at the Presbyterian-run Princeton Theological Seminary, who heeded Dr. King’s call for clergy of all faiths to march in Selma. He was bludgeoned to death by Klansmen outside of a diner for his support of Dr. King’s march. The death of this white minister from Boston caused an outpouring of support for the movement.
Viola Liuzzo was a mother of 5 from Detroit, in Selma for the weekend to support the march for voting rights. She was shot in the head by Klansmen when she stopped for gas while shuttling black marchers from the post-trip Montgomery rally to the Birmingham airport. Her car was rattled with nineteen bullets. After her death, the FBI, concerned that because one of their informants organized Liuzzo’s killing they would be implicated, released a series of false reports documenting her supposed drug use, salacious sex life, and organized crime. These were proven completely false n 1978, and the bureau has never apologized.
We remember the faith and sacrifices of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Jonathan Daniels in light of Christ’s promise that “there is no greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friend.” We remember the example of white allies like Viola Liuzzo, Jim Reeb, Jonathan Daniels, people who heard the call for justice and knew that all of God’s children deserve protection, regardless of skin color.
We remember that all of their killers were unanimously acquitted from juries of their all-white peers. We remember that their blood not only nurtured the growing the civil rights movement, but that it is also “crying out from the ground.”
These are Selma’s martyrs, whose killings galvanized a nation. By ambush, by bludgeon, by pellet, they were murdered to show everyone, look, this is what happens when you stand up against the supremacy of white people. Fifty years ago in rural Alabama, four new martyrs were added to the historical canon.
Their deaths are not outliers, but followed generations of government-sponsored terrorism that was designed to make sure blacks “knew their place.” Reeb, Jackson, Liuzzo, Daniels, and all those who were killed in the civil rights movement are the spiritual descendants of the women and men who were lifted up by hordes bearing fire and rope. They join the untold masses of those who perished under the Atlantic and under the heavy yoke of slavery.
In the end, purveyors of terror and violence are defeated by the tides of selective history, which indeed seem to be arcing towards justice. I cannot tell you the name and life story of a single Centurion, lynch mob organizer, or scheming Klansmen. No, the stories we teach our children revolve around the lives of the innocent, our holy martyrs. We remember a Chicago boy who whistled near a white woman, was reaped and murdered, his body tossed in the Tallahatchie; four little black girls from Birmingham who perished in the house of God; four Americans of conscience, murdered by Southern segregationists; a first century Palestinian Jew, stripped and strung up on a wooden tree.