Last Saturday, there was a peaceful demonstration for civil rights for immigrants in my little suburb. I thought about going. But, well, it was chilly out, I had laundry to do, and besides, there’d be hundreds of other people there. What difference could one more make, anyway?
So I stayed home and clicked “Like” on the Facebook pages of my friends and neighbors who did take part.
Then on Sunday, I heard a sermon that convicted me where I sat.
The visiting preacher was expanding on the gospel reading of the day, Matthew 5:16, where Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
In 1963, (the pastor told us) when the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, continued with no resolution in sight, the African American schoolchildren of the town stepped up.
One Thursday afternoon in spring, hundreds of students – from high school age on down to elementary school age – left their segregated classrooms and gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church. From there, the schoolchildren marched, with peace and purpose, toward City Hall where they knelt on the steps and prayed. As they marched, they sang spirituals, hymns and anthems.
The Birmingham police arrested the children (they arrested children!), but the kids kept coming – two by two, in groups of 50, singing and praying. Before long, at least a thousand African American schoolchildren were in jail. Their parents were horrified, but no one could stop them – even though they knew what would happen next.
[bctt tweet=”Next time, I’ll do better. I’ll take my light out from under that basket…” username=”womenoftheelca”]
The next day, Friday, another thousand schoolchildren gathered at the 16th Street Church and started marching again, still peacefully, still singing. This time, they were met with violence. Blasts from firehoses tumbled the kids off their feet, and trained attack dogs mauled them. The jail was already full, so the police loaded the kids onto buses and took them to a makeshift lockup at the fairgrounds.
The same thing happened again on Saturday.
By the time the Children’s Crusade of 1963 was over, thousands of courageous African-American schoolchildren had marched. These children’s marches finally brought the attention of the national press, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
One of the songs the African American schoolchildren of Birmingham sang as they marched was “This Little Light of Mine,” our preacher concluded. And he asked us to get up on our feet and sing it together, as loudly as we could.
Hearing about those brave kids marching together for justice even as they knew – they knew – that violence and injustice awaited them made me realize that I’d wimped out on doing the right thing. Shame on me. Those kids let their light shine, and I’d left mine under a laundry basket.
Next time, I’ll do better. I’ll take my light out from under that basket and carry it out to where it can do some good. I’m going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
How about you?
Audrey Novak Riley serves the churchwide women’s organization as director for stewardship and development. Every February, the nation observes Black History Month. Check out Women of the ELCA’s free racial justice advocacy resources.