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Can Charlotte's religious leaders fight for everyone's rights?

The words they spoke the day they commemorated Bloody Sunday could drown out the voices of intolerance.



Murphy Archibald stood in the cold, pouring rain on Palm Sunday afternoon, giving me a history lesson of events that occurred 48 years ago in Selma, Ala., when marchers for voting rights crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were beaten, gassed and bloodied by a wall of state troopers refusing to let them pass.

The event would come to be known as Bloody Sunday, and Murphy and I were standing in the rain on this afternoon to commemorate it with a silent march organized by a group of Charlotte's religious leaders.

Since Bloody Sunday in 1965 hastened the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, technically the right to vote is extended to all U.S. citizens over the age of 18. But some groups in this country will do anything to limit the votes of minorities and the poor. Suppression tactics range from the legal, such as redistricting, implementation of voter ID laws, and attempts to eliminate early voting, to the illegal, including intimidation at the polls, strategic voter fraud and sending deceptive calls and mailers telling people to vote on the wrong day.

As we marched down West Trade Street and stopped at the Federal Courthouse, leaders from almost all facets of the religious community spoke about that ongoing struggle for voting rights. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Baha'i leaders spoke powerful words with conviction as a large, diverse group of people listened intently and local news cameras rolled.

They got everyone's attention. They commanded respect. They appealed to our common humanity. They spoke to a spiritual place in me I normally keep in solitary confinement. But as I listened, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if these gifted speakers came together like this and led the community on other issues of freedom and equality.

When the Rev. Rodney Sadler of Union Presbyterian Seminary said the right to vote was not a constitutional right, but a God-given right, I felt compelled to ask him if he also thought the right to build a life for yourself and be with your family anywhere on this planet was a God-given right. If he agreed, would he lend his oratory superpowers to the fight for immigrant rights?

Minister Jay Leach of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte told the story of James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister who answered the call of Dr. Martin Luther King and joined the protests in Selma in 1965, where he was ultimately slain by a group of white men before the march even began. I wondered if in the same fearless spirit, Leach would answer the call of gay men and women, should they need him to march alongside them for the right to marry one another.

When Imam Khalil Akbar of Masjid Ash-Shaheed (Mosque of The Witness) impressed upon me the words, "social justice is the idea that if blood doesn't flow to every part of the body, the body will die, and so it is with our society," I hoped he wasn't just using blood as a metaphor for freedom, because the same can be said for power and money, which are far too concentrated in only one segment of society. If he believes this, perhaps his congregation could lend a helping hand to movements like Occupy, which has evolved from those early days in New York to a group fighting to keep families facing foreclosure in their homes and to expose greed and corruption.

Would those who led us that day continue walking? Walking for types of equality of which society hasn't had 48 years to get comfortable with? Would they walk for the rights of people some of their colleagues won't even allow to attend their church?

The talk they were talking is exactly what many have been waiting to hear: words about our duty to create a world of love and equality for absolutely everyone. The words they spoke could drown out the voices of intolerance and repression in pulpits that have kept me out of church for my entire adult life.

I really hope that Sunday was not the end of their journey. Together, they could inspire so many others to walk with them.

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