March 24, 2015

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. 2 Timothy 4:7, 8

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the third, final and ultimately successful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, a protest against the lack of voting rights for blacks in the South.

Earlier this month was the commemoration of the first march, the one conducted on what came to be called “Bloody Sunday,” when law enforcement used clubs and tear gas to break up protestors crossing Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Afterwards, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for volunteers and ministers to attempt a second demonstration, but they were blocked by a federal judge’s temporary stay on demonstrations. The final march began March 21 after the judge ordered federal protection for the participants. The crowd, led by King, swelled to 25,000 by the time they reached the state’s Capitol in Montgomery.

Ultimately, the public shock at the violence and the protesters’ persistence propelled Congress and the President to pass and sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which helped open voter rolls to millions of Southern blacks.

Visitors to the site of the initial skirmish, the Pettus bridge (which, Smithsonian magazine notes, is named after a Confederate general and leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan), can find a number of places nearby that tell more about the historic protests. Not surprisingly, the National Park Service has an interpretative center, which offers photographs of the events and video interviews with people on both sides of the issue. That’s a good place to start exploring the Selma to Montgomery route, which is a Park Service National Historic Trail. The 54-mile route is on U.S. Highway 80, and has another interpretative center as well as commemorative signs along the way.

The February issue of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Decision magazine has an article about the evangelist’s role in race relations. He promoted integration early on in his ministry. During his 1957 New York City crusade, uneasy over the predominately white crowd in Madison Square Garden, he preached in Harlem and Brooklyn, specifically inviting all the listeners to attend. And they did.

He invited Dr. King to address his team on racial issues and to pray at the crusade. As Graham noted in his autobiography, King told him to keep doing what he was doing—preaching the Gospel to integrated audiences and leading by example—and King would keep doing his work on the streets.

Graham was at the White House when the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, and after the Selma march, at the urging of President Lyndon Johnson, he held an evangelistic campaign across Alabama.

Dr. King noted, “Had it not been for the ministry of my good friend Dr. Billy Graham, my own work in the civil rights movement would not have been as successful as it has been.”

History—biblical and secular—is filled with the stories of men and women who did what was right in the face of terrific opposition, and supported others who also did so. They were willing to leave comfort and stability behind because they felt strongly that wrongs needed to be righted. Christians through the ages, knowing that even though what they were doing was right in God’s eyes and were in a way following Jesus’ example, also acknowledged that they would pay a price for civil disobedience (see1 Peter 2:13-24 and Hebrews 11, and the story of the early church in the book of Acts). Dr. King endured stints in jail—and produced a remarkable letter that still resonates today, defending his work as a righteous struggle (he was, after all, one of the founders and the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Council). And he was one who paid with his life. As he proclaimed in his now-famous speech the night before he died:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

None of us is perfect. None of us is capable of bringing perfect justice to our very imperfect world. But isn’t it amazing that God uses us flawed people to do His work anyway?

So carry on with what He’s called you to do. It’s those who fight the good fight, finish the course and keep the faith who will reap the reward of spending eternity in the presence of the One who alone has the power, wisdom and will to truly and justly right every wrong.

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