Why Selma Still Matters 50 Years Later – Guest post by Dr. Felicia LaBoy

&"Many in our country commemorated the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma on March 7, 2015. While many made the trek for this historic event, and even though the movie “Selma” was nominated for a best picture award, many are unaware at best, and ambivalent at worst with regard to the need to remember “Bloody Sunday.”   What makes this historic event even more important is that it came just a few days after the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released its findings which “concluded Ferguson, Missouri, police department routinely engages in racially biased practices” that served the economic interests of the city and were largely based on subjective criteria (i.e., “manner of walking along roadway”).[1] We do not only have to highlight the DOJ’s recent report on Ferguson, but we can also turn to January 2015 news reports that North Miami Beach Police offers used the booking photos of young black men for target practice, often riddling their faces with bullet holes.   All of this not even a full three months into this year.

Furthermore, during the last few months of 2014, we could count at least four deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of the police, most often, white police officers – Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio; and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio. Not only have unarmed black males been accosted, but also prominent black females. In May of 2014, an African American female Arizona State professor was bodyslammed for “jay walking” down a street close to campus because the sidewalk was obstructed. In September 2014, Django Unchained actress Daniela Watts was stopped for showing her white boyfriend “fully clothed affection.” The reason for the stop was that some in the neighborhood mistook Ms. Watts for a prostitute and her boyfriend for a client. When she refused to show her identification, she was handcuffed and detained.

Following the commemoration of the march on Selma, a recurrent theme continues to appear: there is something so deviant about black bodies that the only “rational” approach to dealing with them is to utilize the most extreme force of violence available. While all of the rhetoric of late has been around the idea that “black bodies matter,” I want to suggest that we need to extend the conversation to ask, “How do they matter exactly?” or to put it another way, “What is it about black and brown bodies that seems to invoke subconscious feelings that somehow these bodies are less than others – that these bodies are heathen and brutish?” It is to ask “What about black and brown bodies makes others think it is okay to brutalize and utilize them for economic means (i.e., slavery, or as in the DOJ report, to line city coffers; a practice that also dates back to Post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow).[2] To answer these questions is to begin an honest discussion about race, power, privilege, idolatry and money. It is to own up to our past and to discern how historical perceptions of black bodies continue today. It is also to be quite honest about the fact that sin has systemic and corporate manifestations that can easily habituate us, if we are not aware of its subtleties. It is to be honest about the fact that there are sins of omission and commission. Even though we might not be directly engaged in activities, our silence serves as tacit approval of unholy acts. Finally, to neglect these matters of racial violence is to deny the prophetic nature of Christ in dealing with earthly rulers and the responsibility of the church of Jesus Christ to continue in this vein. It is also to deny our Wesleyan heritage, especially how it relates to the abolition of slavery.

To begin the healing, we must establish that black bodies, like all bodies matter, because all humanity is created in the image of God. In fact, God loves human flesh enough to inhabit it. As we celebrate this season of Lent, we are particularly clear that in Jesus, God inhabits human flesh that culturally inhabits a place of marginalization, poverty, and oppression. Not only is the idea of bodies important with regard to Christ and us, “body” is the descriptive language for the church. We are reminded in 1 Corinthians 11 and 12 that God gifts each body as God wills and that we are to give honor, especially to those parts that would have less honor.   To fail to discern the body of Christ is to keep up the divisions manifested in society that privilege race, class, gender, age, ability, and heterosexuality.

Second, we need to be honest about the fact that since the earliest encounters with Africans, especially during colonization and slavery, blacks were deemed to be less than human. Even our Constitution defined that those of African descent were only three-fifths human. Many books described those early African Americans, especially black men, as brutes and beasts. Black women were defined by the stereotypes of the hyper-sexualized Jezebel and the asexual Mammy. Like black men, black women were described as animals valued for their ability to breed and work like black men in the fields. Many Christians justified slavery because they saw it as a compassionate system by which to “domesticate these heathen people.”

Even though slavery was ended, these perceptions of black bodies continued throughout our history even until the Civil Rights era. What else could account for the brutality of lynching and the fact that many God-fearing church folks attended lynchings in between Sunday morning and evening services? It is well documented that not too few preachers hyped up mobs prior to lynchings by using biblical texts to vilify blacks. The problem is the erroneous belief that images of black and brown people as animalistic has been erased from American memory because of Civil Rights and the gains of black people, especially in the last fifty years. As demonstrated above, in Ferguson, Beavercreek, Cleveland, North Miami Beach, as well as many other un-researched places, this clearly is not the case.

Outright violence denies the sacredness of black bodies, especially poor black bodies. Yet I also submit that the church is complicit in vilifying poor black bodies. It is complicit when it defines charity as social justice work. It is complicit when it refuses to do the prophetic work of interrogating itself to see how it helps to maintain social systems that necessitate soup kitchens, food pantries and clothing drives.   By always defining ourselves in the “let’s help” category, which is often an idolatrous and neo-colonialistic way of saying “let’s help you be like us, we often fail to take into account the humanity of those who inhabit poor and colored bodies. We often fail to discern their intelligence and their creativity as humans created in the image of God handling unjust situations the best they can.   We often fail to see that they too have been given gifts by our creator that we desperately need.

For my Christian brothers and sisters who simply say this is a matter of disobedience and lawbreaking, not racism, I ask them to consider whether or not the bible and our history as descendants of Wesley has much to say about obeying unjust laws and the treatment of the poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized.  When we engage in practices that treat poor and black and brown bodies as less human than we are, we fail to deconstruct the very systems that vilify them and subconsciously maintain that we are in the possession of the “good” that belongs to God alone.

By grounding the acceptance of outcasts and raising up of the humiliated in the kingdom of God that Jesus preached and lived, the church can name overt, covert, and systemic racism and classism for what they are – sinful and idolatrous; and in accordance with the ethic of the kingdom declare that they have no place in the Church.

So is Selma still important some 50 years later? Of course it is, and it will continue to be as we remember our Wesleyan heritage, and reclaim our prophetic roles within the church and the larger society. Those who marched from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago did so on Sunday, and were beaten as they knelt to pray against an unholy and unjust system. I only pray that we may be found as faithful when someone stands to recount our history.


Dr. Felicia LaBoy is Assistant Professor of Evangelization in the Heisel Chair at United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio


[1] What makes the DOJ report even more damaging and disturbing is that the DOJ report demonstrates that these racially biased stops contributed some 2.6 million dollars to the city coffers.   Some estimates argue that these stops comprise 20% of the city’s municipal court’s revenue.

[2] For more on this see Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II which chronicles the lease (essentially the sale) of convicts to commercial interests between Post Reconstruction and the early part of the 20th century. Although the criminal offense was often highly subjective (i.e., loosely defined vagrancy or even changing employers without permission), the actual penalty, reserved almost exclusively for black men, served as a form of de facto slavery in one of hundreds of forced labor camps operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small business owners and local farmers.


2 thoughts on “Why Selma Still Matters 50 Years Later – Guest post by Dr. Felicia LaBoy

  1. Excellent post. Thanks for sharing.

    I mean the compliment for the entirety of the piece. Still I was particularly moved by her making the distinction between charity and social justice and our Christian obligation for justice.

  2. The most striking point in the article, for me, was the connection when Dr. Laboy stated that all human beings are worthy of salvation, justice, caring/compassion and dignity because God deemed each and all persons worthy of God’s Spirit within them! This, to me, is a more profound statement than appears at first glance, given our UMC’s current seeming perspective toward human beings. By this I mean it appears our denomination, at least in the USA portion of the connection, has glossed over and/or opted to ignore this aspect of our faith. By doing so, our denominational focus of “social justice” is that of a strictly human effort of loving others the way we want to be loved because “it’s the constitutionally-right thing to do” because our constitution says we are all humanly created equal. What get’s forgotten is the theological foundation given us by Jesus (the human) Christ (the divine). Dr. Laboy’s article reminds us that we are called/commanded by God to share both the hand of human care and compassion AS WELL AS remembering it is because God first loved us!! And Christ has come so we (ALL persons) could have life eternal NOW as well as after death. And when our “people in the pews” fail to share that gospel message, our culture fills that vacuum with other theories/actions.

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