On Sunday, March 15th, in observance of the 50th anniversary of the Selma March, SUMC was blessed to have Rev. Gil Caldwell, a UMC minister and leader in the Civil Rights Movement, preach at the morning worship service. A passionate and compelling speaker, he shared the following letter written in tribute to his fellow marcher, Rev. James Reeb, who died from injuries sustained in a beating by white men two days after Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Letter to James Reeb and his Family

Dear Jim,

I am on way to St. Olaf College to participate in their magnificent tribute to the Civil Rights Movement and to you, a St. Olaf alum. I am looking forward to meeting your daughter Anne with whom I have had some e-mail correspondence, and your granddaughter Leah. I am writing this early on the morning I depart for St. Olaf. Each morning I have awakened, since my retirement in 2001, I have sought to listen to my “Divine Muse” to hear what thoughts have entered my being. My mother used to say, near the end of her life, “I do not make any important decisions until I feel that I am Divinely Led.” I have been Divinely led to write these words. Why?

Many years ago when the struggle against racist apartheid was taken place, I was one of those who got arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington, DC. After that I stayed tuned to the struggle in South Africa and read all that I could. This morning I remember the words that I read spoken by a black South African minister who was deeply disappointed by the white resistance to ending apartheid. He said, “The thing that worries me is that by the time  white people get around to loving us, we shall have gotten around to hating them.”

Jim I write this with a heart as heavy as it has ever been in my 81 years. It is you and white people like you who have dared to stand up on behalf of the struggles of black people and our long journey toward equality and justice that keep me from stepping back from my life long commitment to racial justice. And it is a college like St. Olaf that embraces the black struggle through its “A Long Walk Home – 50 years climbing the Hill to Freedom”, that offers me a glimmer of hope amidst the darkness caused by anti-black racial insensitivity at best, racism at worst.

It is a wonderful coincidence that I am writing this on my way to St. Olaf College when what has happened at the University of Oklahoma that has broken my spirit. How can white young people who are preparing to take their place in the life of our nation, some of them as leaders, be so insensitive, so unknowing, so unaware of the long walk to freedom that we who are black have made and continue to make. As they joked about the lynching of black men, do they not know the song, “Strange Fruit” that has these words; “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from poplar trees.”

And there is Michelle Alexander’s book, THE NEW JIM CROW, Mass Incarceration in an Age of Color Blindness, that reminds us that there are more black men in prison today than there were in slavery many years ago. There are those who oppose President Obama and at times his family in ways that are race-based that my 10 year-old grand-daughter cannot understand. And then there is a Supreme Court and a Congress that is whittling away provisions of the Voting Rights Act as though you and many other white and black Americans did not lose your lives in support of the meaning of Selma; the right to vote.

Jim, I am hoping that my being at St. Olaf will restore the “pep in my step” that I am beginning to lose. And more importantly, it is my prayerful hope that what has happened and will happen during St. Olaf’s “A Long Walk Home” will not just stay at St. Olaf, but will embrace the University of Oklahoma and every college and University in the nation.

Jim, I must stop now. I must travel to Newark Airport and on to St. Olaf today. But, I end these words by saying to you, “Thanks for the memories” that you evoke in my spirit. You left Boston to go to Selma because you cared about the black struggle for freedom, about black people, and all people. May white people throughout the nation begin to rid themselves of their unawareness, sometimes cloaked in innocence and ignorance, that keeps them from understanding that “Black Lives Matter” as do all lives. Your spirit Jim, is intertwined with my spirit. Thanks, thanks, for you.

Gilbert H. Caldwell

Asbury Park, New Jersey

A retired African American United Methodist Minister

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