January 19, 2014
I Corinthians 12:4-13
Students return—and we’re
always glad for that, even though it means we no longer enjoy the abundance of
parking spaces that we’ve had in recent weeks—classes start, and as is the
custom and calendar at the University, the spring semester begins with the
annual Celebration of Human Rights honoring the life and work of Martin Luther
King Jr. What used to be a week now starts with the interfaith worship service
tonight and continues through the end of the month.
It should be a point of pride—not only for the university but for our
whole community that the recognition of King’s birthday has been a tradition at
the University of Iowa since 1969, and that since its inception in 1986 the
national holiday has been observed through human rights programs.
Speaking about human rights
recently, our own Sandy Boyd said, “It’s a never-ending frontier — we always
need to move forward.”
For a few minutes this morning
I want us to think together about how we move forward. And I want us to think
about how we move forward together.
The path is rarely straight.
And we walk that path with many
In Montgomery, Alabama in 1955
an African American woman got on a Capital Heights bus downtown to ride to her
home. She relied on the city's buses. She sat in the middle section. By now
everyone knows what was expected. If the bus became so crowded that all the
"white seats" in front were filled and a white person was standing,
African Americans were supposed to leave these seats and move to the back and
stand if needed. When a white woman got on the bus and was standing, the bus
driver ordered this woman and two other black passengers to get up and move to
By now, everyone knows what
happened next. When the woman refused, she was removed from the bus and
arrested by two police officers.
What everyone might not know is
that this woman was not Rosa Parks, who was arrested nine months later for the
same offense. The first person to be arrested for resisting the segregation of
buses in Montgomery was a teenager, Claudette Colvin. She was handcuffed,
arrested and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional
rights were being violated.
For some time, the African American leaders in Montgomery
didn’t publicize Colvin's pioneering effort because she was a teenager and
became pregnant while unmarried. Given the social norms of the time and her
youth, the leaders worried about using her to represent their movement.
Someone else was needed. And, yes, that “someone” proved
to be Rosa Parks.
Growing up I learned the story that Rosa Parks was coming
home from a long day of working as a seamstress in a department store. She was
simply too tired to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.
The reality, of course was that she was the secretary of
the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. She had recently attended the Highlander
Folk School in Tennessee, a center for training activists for workers’ rights
and racial equality. Civil rights leaders thought that Parks was the best
candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for violating
Alabama segregation laws though eventually her case became bogged down in the
And then there was E. D. Nixon, the president of the Montgomery
chapters of the NAACP. Nixon had been organizing work against segregation
before the arrest of Rosa Parks and saw in her the person who would move the
African-American community to action. Nixon organized a meeting of local
ministers at the church of a young minister who was new to the city, Martin
Luther King, Jr. Ultimately King agreed to lead a citywide boycott of public
In retrospect, their demand
seems small: a fixed dividing line for the segregated sections of the buses.
Such a line would have meant that if the white section of the bus was
oversubscribed, whites would have to stand; blacks would not be forced to give
up their seats to whites. This demand was a compromise for the leaders of the
boycott, who believed that the city of Montgomery would be more likely to
accept it rather than a demand for a full integration of the buses. This was to
be supplemented by a requirement that all bus passengers receive courteous
treatment by bus operators, be seated on a first-come, first-served basis, and
that blacks be employed as bus drivers.
The boycott lasted over a year.
And we know how it worked. Leaders organized a system of carpools, with car
owners volunteering their vehicles or themselves driving people to various destinations.
Some white women also drove their black domestic servants to work. When the
city pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in the
carpools, the boycott leaders arranged policies with Lloyds’ of London. Some
people biked, walked, or even rode mules or drove horse-drawn buggies. Some
We know, too, the ferocity of
the white response. The houses of King and of Ralph Abernathy were firebombed
as were four churches. Boycotters were physically attacked. And yet, when some
300 African-Americans gathered in anger at King’s bombed-out house, he stirred
them to stay the nonviolent course they had chosen, saying:
If you have weapons, take them
home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve
this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.
Remember the words of Jesus: 'He who lives by the sword will perish by the
sword'. We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must
make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo
across the centuries: 'Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for
them that despitefully use you'. This is what we must live by. We must meet
hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because
God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant
“If I am stopped, this movement
will not stop.” Something was happening that was greater than one man—even as
great a man as King. What began with a teenager on a bus had become a movement
King and 89 other boycott
leaders and carpool drivers were indicted for conspiring to interfere with a
business under a 1921 ordinance. Rather than wait to be arrested, they turned
themselves in as an act of defiance.
As the boycott continued so too
did the court case of Claudette Colvin and four other women challenging racial
segregation on buses. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which
declared Alabama’s racial segregation laws unconstitutional in December of
1956, leading to the end of the boycott on December 20.
“There are different gifts,”
Paul told the early Christians in Corinth. “There are different gifts, but it
is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
A young woman with the teenage
gift of resistance, willing to shout and even to go to court if necessary.
An older woman with the gift of
deep commitment to racial equality informed by training in nonviolence.
A persistent leader not only
gifted in organizing people but also knowing how to influence clergy to elicit
their at first reluctant support.
A young minister with many
gifts, including the ability to speak in ways that would galvanize people to
keep their eyes on the prize in through difficult and dangerous days.
And thousands of people with
the gift of a passion for justice that sustained them during a 381 day boycott.
There are different gifts.
And God activates them in
The Press-Citizen reported
yesterday that three years after the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, the
leader of that action visited Iowa City and spoke down the hill at the IMU.
That night, Martin Luther King, Jr., told the crowd, “Human progress is neither
automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social
advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of
justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle — the tireless exertions and
passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
It was not one person but
dedicated individuals working together, using their various gifts, that won
victory in Montgomery. It is dedicated individuals working together that have
brought us this far on the path toward full human rights for all people, that
sustain us as we dare to move forward into that never-ending frontier.
Equality is not
Peace does not
come without confrontation.
its own requirements for our lives and our world.
King’s goal was
to create what he called “a beloved community.” This was not some utopian
vision that was unattainable on this earth in this life. Both and inward and an
outward transformation were necessary. But King was convinced that if enough
people were trained in and committed to nonviolence, just such a community
would come into being.
The theme for this year’s human
rights celebration comes from King’s statement: “Life’s most persistent and
urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
What are you doing for others?
The participants in the
Montgomery bus boycott—the leaders and the followers, the known and honored,
the unknown and unacknowledged—all teach us that “doing for others” is not an
isolated effort. The gifts of Claudette Colvin were as needed for the success
of that action as the gifts of Martin Luther King. We gain the courage and strength we need to
use our gifts from the actions of others even as we give strength to others
through what we do.
I like to think that in our own small way,
this congregation is part of that great effort to build the beloved community. In
this city and for this campus we are a strong witness to God’s acceptance of
and love for all people. We do this as a community, as a congregation. We do
this by using our various gifts together.
And, yes, our witness does require courage, for not everyone agrees with us.
But it is one way that we move toward the community that King envisioned. It is
one way that we move forward in the pursuit of human rights.
None of this is
done by one person alone. We move forward when together we recognize and use
the unique and powerful gifts that we have.