King's Dream Nears Reality in Cradle of Civil Rights

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by
The Toronto Star

King's Dream Nears Reality in Cradle of Civil Rights

by
Royson James

Young boys play in front of the Brown Chapel, in Selma, Ala., Nov. 2, 2008. The church played a pivotal role in civil rights marches in 1965. ( RENÉ JOHNSTON/TORONTO STAR)

SELMA, Ala. - On the Sunday before election day in America, politics and religion do mix. And few places are more fervently engaged than this town, steeped in civil rights lore.

"It's your season to be blessed," sings the choir of the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. "God made you a promise, you stood the test."

Parishioners rise to join the refrain and there's little doubt that many are thinking about the "promise" of tomorrow's election, with their favoured candidate Barack Obama leading in the polls.

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"He's opened up the window and poured you out a blessing." Everyone's singing now, rocking in frenzied holiness.

"It's your season to be blessed."

Mayor James Perkins - the first African-American to lead this predominantly black town - is in the front row. His wife, Cynthia, sports an Obama for President button.

Church greeter Ozetta Thomas is wearing an Obama campaign button as an announcement tells parishioners where and when churchgoers can get a ride to the polling booth tomorrow.

And the young man, receiving the emblem for holy communion, sports a dogtag with Obama's picture.

And we are not yet at the church most identified with the monumental effort to secure the right to vote, a movement that climaxed in 1965 with the infamous Bloody Sunday showdown between blacks and city and state police.

A few blocks away is Brown Chapel - a most pleasing edifice with Romanesque Revival architecture, and graced by a monument to Martin Luther King and other civil rights organizers. Brown Chapel is designated a national historic site.

Outside, Charles Robertson, an organizer of protest marches 43 years ago, is herding journalists, his head kept cool by a natty Obama for President cap.

Here, Pastor James E. Jackson, in white vestments for this communion Sunday, presides over a less effervescent audience, but the message is similarly clear.

"We are in the last few days of an historic moment," he tells the 70 parishioners in the gorgeous, beautifully kept church that, in 1965, was constantly overflowing with "outside agitators" in town to challenge Alabama racist voting restrictions.

King called clergy from all over the world to descend on Selma to press for voting rights, he said. "We don't want to waste that. Let's go out and vote."

The church bulletin, mindful of this hallowed ground, reads: "On March 7, 1965, in the noonday sun of a sacred communion Sunday, a small group of approximately 100 dedicated souls arose from the very pews in which you sit, and marched into history."

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Lawrence and Dorothea Huggins were among them. They have eschewed their own service at the Catholic church to come to this shrine on this particular Sunday. As teachers at T.S. Hudson high school, they'd been one of the first groups to march on the state courthouse and demand the right to vote.

"I feel like Dr. King is looking down," Dorothea says, King's bust towering down from the monument in front of the church. "I feel like he's reached that mountaintop. He had that dream; now it's coming to reality."

Back at Ebenezer, the choir has given way to Rev. Frederick Reese, 79, and still pastor. A legend, who got his head cracked open trying to march from Selma to Montgomery on Bloody Sunday. His sermon plumbs the familiar biblical story of the Jews' deliverance from Egyptian bondage.

And within minutes, Reese and his audience are in a holy synchronization.

Like the Children of Israel "we've endured many difficulties, but the Lord has brought us to possess the land," he intones.

"You can hold out a little while longer," he implores.

"Sure can!" is the response.

"A few more miles to the setting of the sun," he hollers.

"Yes Lawd!" they chant.

"A few more days and the race's gonna be won."

"Glory!"

You can imagine tomorrow night.

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