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Sometimes the World is Black and White: Archbishop Iakovos and the Lesson of Selma

March 15 marks the half-century anniversary of the culmination of a dramatic series of events in American Civil Rights history that have been seared into the country’s national consciousness, events now remembered simply as “Selma.”  On that day, captured for posterity in a moving cover photograph for LIFE magazine, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Iakovos, appeared together on a prominent national stage.  They were brought together by recent violence, tragedy, and murder that had taken place in Selma, Alabama.

Risking their jobs, their homes, and their families’ physical safety, African-American residents in and around Selma, Alabama, took the first steps beginning in January 1965 in what would become a fateful civil rights campaign.  Initiated by student activists and organized by ministers from the Southern Christian Leadership Council, local blacks attempted to register to vote, a basic civil and political right that they had been denied for generations after the post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South.  Town and county officials repeatedly turned away all black citizens as they rejected every attempt by African Americans to register to vote.  In response, the disenfranchised black community joined together in marches and peaceful demonstrations.  Despite constant intimidation and provocations from local and state police, civil rights protesters continued to rally and march peacefully in adherence to the Christian principle of non-violent civil disobedience.

Frustrated by their failure to silence the Selma protests, Alabama police authorities, now joined by members of the Ku Klux Klan, militant segregationists, and other white supremacists, turned to open violence.  On February 17, state troopers fired on and attacked a group of marchers in the nearby-town of Marion, killing a young Baptist deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and wounding several others.  In response to the killing and violence in Marion, the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council prepared a march to take place from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery, a distance of more than fifty miles.

On Sunday, March 7, some 600 marchers assembled outside a black community church in Selma to begin the journey to Montgomery.  As they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge (ironically, named in honor of a Confederate general) over the Alabama River they were blocked, mockingly ordered to disperse, and then violently attacked by state troopers and local police.  Firing teargas canisters, mounted police and police on foot charged into the column of marchers, clubbing and beating both male and female protestors, ultimately hospitalizing more than 50 people.  The police rampage was broadcast by television around the world.  News and images of the violence stirred outrage across the country.  In the view of many scholars, “Bloody Sunday,” as the violent event came to be known, and the following week of developments culminating on March 15, marked the critical turning point in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

In response to the events of March 7, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent telegrams to prominent religious and civic leaders urging them to join him in protest in Selma against the recent violence.  Hundreds of supporters responded and began arriving in Selma over the next several days.  Shortly after his arrival in Selma, one of those supporters, Rev. James Reeb, a young white Kansas-born Unitarian Universalist minister and community organizer from Boston, was brutally beaten and murdered by a group of Klansmen.  Rev. Reeb’s death, on March 11, produced a national uproar, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to address the nation in a televised broadcast in which he decried Reeb’s killing as an “American tragedy.”  A memorial service for James Reeb was planned to take place in Selma, on Monday, March 15, at Brown Chapel, the church where marchers had first assembled on “Bloody Sunday.”

From his headquarters in New York, the head of the then Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, Archbishop Iakovos, had been following the escalating events in Selma with growing alarm.  On March 12, the day after the death of Rev. Reeb, the Archbishop telegrammed the minister’s widow: “The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and our communicants extend deepest condolences and sympathy on the tragic death of your beloved husband, a minister of God who fought oppression of Human Rights and dignity and died heroically on the battlefield of mankind.”  The following day, March 13, Archbishop Iakovos was asked by Rev. Robert Spike, Executive Director of the National Council of Churches Commission on Religion and Race to fly to Selma in order to represent the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the World Council of Churches (Iakovos was one of its presidents), and the National Council of Churches (Iakovos was its vice-president), at the memorial for Rev. Reeb.  On March 14, Iakovos met in New York with his staff and advisors, made up of both priests and lay people, who counseled him against going to Selma.  Iakovos’ advisors were concerned about the highly charged atmosphere in Selma, they were fearful about the Archdiocese taking any action that might prove to be politically unpopular, and they feared for the Archbishop’s personal safety. 

Against the opposition of his staff and advisors, Iakovos resolved to go to Selma.  On the morning of March 15, Archbishop Iakovos, accompanied by only one assistant priest, Fr. George Bacopoulos, and twenty other prominent clergymen representing various denominations flew into Selma on a small aircraft, which their pilot landed in a nearby cow pasture because he feared a violent reception awaited them at the town’s airport.  Iakovos soon arrived at Brown Chapel where distinguished religious and community leaders from around the country had already gathered to eulogize James Reeb.  As the highest-ranking religious leader at the memorial service, Iakovos was given a place of honor on the dais, from where he spoke to the nearly 4,000 mourners who filled the church to capacity and poured outside, saying:

I came to this memorial service because I believe this is an appropriate occasion not only to dedicate myself as well as our Greek Orthodox communicants to the noble cause for which our friend, the Reverend James Reeb, gave his life; but also in order to show our willingness to continue this fight against prejudice, bias, and persecution.  In this God-given cause, I feel sure that I have the full and understanding support of our Greek Orthodox faithful of America.  For our Greek Orthodox Church and our people fully understand from our heritage and our tradition such sacrificial involvements.  Our Church has never hesitated to fight, when it felt it must, for the rights of mankind; and many of our Churchmen have been in the forefront of these battles time and again….The ways of God are not always revealed to us, but certainly His choice of this dedicated minister to be the victim of racial hatred and the hero of this struggle to gain unalienable constitutional rights for those American brethren of ours who are denied them, and to die, so to speak, on this battlefield for human dignity and equality, was not accidental or haphazard.  Let us seek out in this tragedy a divine lesson for all of us.  The Reverend Reeb felt he could not be outside the arena of this bitter struggle, and we, too, must feel that we cannot.  Let his martyrdom be an inspiration and a reminder to us that there are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for the basic American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, without which this land cannot survive.  Our hope and prayer, then, is that we may be given strength to let God know by our acts and deeds, and not only by our words, that like the late Reverend James Reeb, we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.”

Some time later, Rev. King arrived and offered his own stirring eulogy to the congregation.  Eventually, as the mourners moved to exit the crowded church, Rev. King paused for a moment over the threshold of the doorway of Brown Chapel, locked hands with Iakovos, and spoke quietly and privately to the Archbishop.  From there, the two religious figures led the crowd of thousands in a solemn, peaceful, half-hour-long procession to Selma’s courthouse.  At the center, leading the march, was Dr. King carrying a purple and white memorial wreath, next to King on his right was Archbishop Iakovos, and to King’s left were Rev. Ralph Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young.  A resolute Iakovos, appearing stoic but dignified in his flowing black cassock and skufia, and clutching his archiepiscopal staff, towered physically over all others around him, capturing both the awe of spectators who had lined the streets and the curiosity of hundreds of reporters, photographers, and cameramen who followed the procession along its entire march.

When Rev. King and Archbishop Iakovos reached the courthouse, they found the building locked from the inside.  They and the other dignitaries leading the procession climbed the courthouse steps and then turned to face the almost 4,000 people who had followed them.  At that precise moment a photographer captured the image of Iakovos and King together that would appear on the front cover of the March 26 issue of the immensely popular, ubiquitous Life magazine, an indelible and still incomparable visual impression of the presence of Orthodox Christianity in American history and society. 

Following the conclusion of the memorial, Fr. Bacopoulos left for New York and Archbishop Iakovos flew to visit the Greek Orthodox parish of Holy Trinity in Charleston, South Carolina.  Since his enthronement as Archbishop in 1959, Iakovos had begun a concerted effort to visit all of the parishes in the Archdiocese, and his return from Selma afforded him an opportunity, which he had not previously realized, to meet his fellow Orthodox Christians in Charleston.  However, upon his arrival in Charleston the Archbishop experienced bigotry and a backlash from his own people.  Not a single member of the Charlestown Greek Orthodox community appeared for scheduled events, and Iakovos found himself alone in a hotel room fielding a stream of hostile phone calls throughout the night from Greek Americans across the country that were enraged by his presence in Selma earlier that day.       

In the years that followed Selma—marked by the subsequent legislative triumphs initiated by the Civil Rights Movement, and the expanding enlightenment of society around race and equality—more and more people, including the vast majority of Greek Orthodox Americans, came to appreciate Archbishop Iakovos’ role in the Civil Rights Movement.  Today, Greek Orthodox Christians in America rightly take reflective pride in the courage, vision, and dignity that Archbishop Iakovos displayed in the face of hatred, racism, and persecution.  Iakovos, unlike most of his white hierarchical contemporaries in the Roman Catholic and major Protestant Churches, especially during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, was a consistently outspoken foe of racial intolerance and inequality throughout his entire period of archiepiscopal leadership.  Indeed, eulogizing the Archbishop’s death in 2005, Rev. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, reflected that “at a time when many of the nation’s most prominent clergy were silent, Archbishop Iakovos courageously supported our Freedom Movement and marched alongside my husband, and he continued to support the nonviolent movement against poverty, racism and violence throughout his life.” 

Without a doubt, Iakovos’ personal life experience growing up persecuted and discriminated against as an Orthodox Christian in Kemalist Turkey significantly influenced his unique perspective and distinguished him from other white major religious leaders in America.  Archbishop Iakovos knew all too well the harsh realities that defined life as a member of a minority traumatized by a history of enslavement.  Growing up as a Greek Orthodox Christian and citizen of the Republic of Turkey he had confronted daily the legacy of enslavement: the humiliations and insecurity that came with living in a society where his basic freedoms and rights were denied, where persecution, oppression, and arbitrary violence against his community were commonplace and justified by law.  Given his past, Iakovos identified with African Americans in ways that most Americans, including most Greek Americans, were never aware of or could never fully comprehend.

Ultimately, it was Iakovos’ faith that decisively determined his engagement with the world.  In short, the Archbishop was an unwavering, consistent advocate of the Civil Rights Movement because he was an Orthodox Christian, in deed and action, not only in word.  For Iakovos, some of the most basic principles of Orthodoxy—freedom, equality, justice, and the dignity and worth of all lives—were existential realities for all of humanity, because of God’s grace.  Denying people basic rights, persecuting individuals and communities on the basis of race, religion, or culture, constituted a rupture with God because it desecrated our sacred responsibility to accept and love all of humanity and to recognize that each and every person, regardless of race, is created in the image of God.  At Selma, Iakovos took the very unpopular action, at that time, to stand alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in defense of the powerless, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the poor because the Archbishop not only preached theology, he lived Orthodoxy.  Iakovos was determined to bring the beauty of his faith and Church into the real and sometimes ugly and brutal world, locking arms with Rev. King as a sign that we all must participate in transforming the world around us.     

There was no ambiguity in Archbishop Iakovos’ decision to embark upon the road to Selma—for him it was a moral obligation.  He truly revered and practiced the tenets of Orthodox Christianity, including the realization that there are moral absolutes, that often there is a right and a wrong, that, indeed, the world is sometimes black and white, and that such truths warrant recognition and action in their defense.  This is the fundamental lesson to be drawn by the noble, inspiring example set by Archbishop Iakovos at Selma. 

Rev. King often stressed that silence and inaction in the face of injustice and persecution was a betrayal of Christian principles.  Indeed, King famously noted “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  Today, the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States—its hierarchy, clergy, and laity—has a moral obligation and a religious responsibility to rededicate itself to the things that matter, meaning that the Church must work unceasingly to contribute to the societal goals for which Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Iakovos marched together on that fateful day in Selma in 1965.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

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