A Lesson from the Civil Rights Movement


January 19 is the celebration of Martin Luther King’s Birthday.  The powerful movie Selma has been released. And February will be Black History month in America. With this backdrop, I listened today, spellbound, to an  interview  with John Lewis.  John Lewis is a member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia’s 5th District.  He is the only living member of the core leadership (the Big Six) of the Civil Rights Movement. He led the first Selma march on what became known as “Bloody Sunday. “

What captivated me about John Lewis’ re-telling of his story was the fact that he and other civil rights advocates were trained in non-violent disobedience long before they ever occupied a diner, registered a voter, got on a bus for a freedom ride, or marched across a bridge.  The only reason they could respond nonviolently to being threatened, beaten, and attacked by dogs and fire hoses was that they had long practiced loving behaviors in response to hatred.

I remember as a student in Nashville, Tennessee, a small group of students every Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. would gather in a small Methodist church near Fisk University in downtown Nashville.  And we had a teacher by the name of Jim Lawson, a young man who taught us the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. We studied. We studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience. We studied the great religions of the world.

And before we even discussed a possibility of a sit-in, we had role-playing. We had what we called social drama.  There would be black and white young people, students, playing the roles of African-Americans, or an interracial group playing the roles of white. And we went through the motions of someone harassing you, calling you out of your name, pulling you out of your seat, pulling your chair from under you, someone kicking you or pretending to spit on you. Sometimes we did pour cold water on someone, never hot — but we went through the motion.

This was drama because we wanted to feel like they were in the actual situation, that this could happen. And we would tell people, whether young men or young women, that if you’ve been beaten, try to protect the most sensitive part of your body. Roll up, cover your head and look out for each other. So when the time came, we were ready. We were prepared. But we were trained. When we left to go on the freedom ride, we were prepared to die for what we believed in.

In the final analysis, we became a circle of trust, a band of brothers and sisters. So it didn’t matter whether we’re black or white. It didn’t matter whether you came from the North, to the South, or whether you’re a Northerner or Southerner. We were one.

This story of preparation and solidarity is also how we become apprentices of Jesus. We need to study to live like Jesus much like the civil rights workers studied how to be non-violent. We need to train constantly in order to have the mindset that Jesus had.  We need to put ourselves in situations where our need for control, our easy lies, our pride and vainglory, our selfishness, our addiction to our own thinking are challenged – so we can practice living differently.

Cost of discipleshipHow will  I respond if being Jesus in our world leads to rejection, mocking, patronizing, and, even worse, being ignored? What will I do if I really get in the fray of life as  a disciple of Jesus and someone spits at me or beats me or imprisons me or forces me to flee persecution? (It’s happening to Christians all over the world.) We need to become part of a “circle of trust, a band of brothers and sisters.”  We need continually train to be a true disciple of Jesus that we are prepared to die for our Master.


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