Archbishop Iakovos and the Civil Rights Movement: Selma, 1965


In response to a nation-wide call by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., religious and civic leaders from across the country gathered at Brown Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma, Alabama on March 15, 1965 to memorialize two recently fallen heroes of the civil rights movement. The first was twenty-six-year-old African American Jimmie Lee Jackson, a deacon at St. James Baptist Church in Marion, Alabama.

He was shot twice in the stomach in late February and died shortly thereafter. The second was thirty-eight-year-old James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister, who was severely beaten outside a suspected Ku Klux Klan gathering place in early March. He died two days later from wounds he sustained from that brutal beating.

The tragic deaths of these two ministers spurred a national outcry. Distinguished leaders from various faiths and civil rights sympathizers poured into Selma’s Brown Chapel for the memorial service awaiting its featured eulogist, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Among the dignitaries who arrived in Selma that day was His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. Why did Archbishop Iakovos travel to this remote southern city at one of the most volatile moments in our nation’s history?

Since becoming the Greek Orthodox Archbishop on April 1, 1959, Archbishop Iakovos became one of the most prominent church leaders in America to speak out for the need of civil and human rights legislation. His advocacy for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was one of his many accomplishments.

However, as the results of the 1964 election revealed, the Civil Rights Act had not gone far enough to ensure the vote for all citizens: few African Americans voted in the southern states because many white segregationists prevented them from registering. Civil rights organizations labored tirelessly to register African Americans in cities like Selma, Alabama for at least two years with little success.

Of the fifteen thousand African Americans residing in Selma’s Dallas County, only three hundred had registered. In adjacent Perry County, the number of African American registered voters was about the same. Blacks comprised 80 percent of the population in the area immediately south of Dallas County, yet none had registered to vote.

In response, civil rights leaders mobilized and pressured the federal government for a Voting Rights Act at the beginning of 1965. President Lyndon Johnson felt it was too soon after the Civil Rights Act to introduce voting reform legislation, which prompted Martin Luther King Jr. and others into action. Among these were the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race and one of its leaders, Archbishop Iakovos.

Dr. King and other civil rights organizers arrived in Selma in January of 1965 to begin planning their voting rights initiative. It would be a strategy consistent with King’s belief in nonviolent civil disobedience. They would distribute leaflets, hold mass meetings, organize protest marches, and fill the county jails until the country realized the voting injustices inflicted upon blacks throughout the South.

Tensions between whites and blacks continued to mount in Selma and in its adjacent counties in January and February of 1965. A nighttime march in the nearby city of Marion erupted in violence, which led to the brutal death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. In the wake of the horrific events that unfolded in Marion, civil rights organizers planned a peaceful march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery on Sunday, March 7.

The intention of the march was to protest African Americans’ inability to register to vote and the escalating violence perpetrated against them as they attempted to do so. In the absence of Dr. King, the march would begin from Selma’s Brown Chapel, proceed across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and continue along Route 80 to Montgomery.

Six hundred marchers left Brown Chapel and made it as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on the outskirts of town. There awaiting them were hundreds of Alabama state troopers, local policemen, and a volunteer mounted posse comprised of local segregationists flaunting their bullwhips, rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire, and clubs.

As the marchers approached, the state police commander ordered the advance. Immediately, law enforcement officers attacked the marchers, pursuing them back across the bridge and well into Selma’s black neighborhood. In the end, more than fifty people were hospitalized, hundreds were injured, all were terrified, and the nation viewing the spectacle on television were horrified at what would be later known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Learning of the atrocities from Atlanta, King immediately sent telegrams to prominent church leaders across the country calling upon them to join him in “a minister’s march” from Selma to Montgomery on Tuesday, March 9. In response, hundreds of ministers, priests, rabbis, and nuns from across the country descended upon Selma for a second march, and with them hundreds of journalists, photographers, and television cameramen.

One of the ministers who arrived was Unitarian minister James Reeb, who flew in from Boston to join the march. At almost 2:30 PM on March 9, only two days after the horrific spectacle of the first Selma to Montgomery march, Dr. King and hundreds of clergy led a march of three thousand from Brown Chapel towards the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When they reached the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they saw hundreds of state troopers barring their way at the foot of the bridge. When they came within fifty feet of the troopers, Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Police ordered the marchers to halt.

Dr. King, fearing a repeat of the first attempted march, requested if he and the marchers could kneel and pray, which Major Cloud permitted. After a brief prayer, Dr. King rose and led the marchers back into Selma. The second attempted march to Montgomery failed; yet, it succeeded in that no one was hurt, at least not until later that evening when suspected members of the Ku Klux Klan assaulted Reverend James Reeb and two other Unitarian ministers. Reeb would die two days later.

News of Reverend Reeb’s death made headlines across the nation. Archbishop Iakovos sent a telegram to Mrs. Reeb on March 12, which stated in part, “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.”

A memorial service for Reverend Reeb was set for Monday, March 15 at Brown Chapel in Selma. The intended service was to include eulogies in the chapel followed by a procession to the Dallas County Courthouse where prayers and a wreath would be placed at the courthouse doors. However, due to escalating racial hostilities, the procession could not occur, because a court-ordered injunction precluded any march taking place.

On March 13, Reverend Robert Spike, Executive Director of the Commission on Religion and Race, sent a telegram to Archbishop Iakovos inviting him as leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Americas and one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches, and vice president of the National Council of Churches to attend the memorial service in Selma on Monday, March 15. His Eminence consulted with his staff and advisors who strongly recommended that he not attend the memorial due to the violent atmosphere in Alabama and that his life would be in grave danger.

On Monday morning, March 15, Archbishop Iakovos, Fr. George Bacopoulos along with twenty other distinguished clergymen of the Commission on Religion and Race boarded a plane chartered by the National Council of Churches and flew to Alabama. Upon arriving in Selma, the pilot opted to land his plane in a cow pasture outside of the city, as racial tensions were still quite high. Archbishop Iakovos, Fr. Bacopoulos, and the CORR delegates proceeded to Brown Chapel in the black neighborhood of Selma.

Mourners filled the chapel beyond its capacity as hundreds of sympathizers awaited outside in the doorway while others peered through the windows. Upon arrival, His Eminence was directed to a seat on the dais, since he was the highest-ranking cleric present. Clergymen of all denominations participated in the memorial service, awaiting the arrival of the main eulogist, Dr. King. Iakovos remembered how surprised local blacks were to see a Greek Orthodox archbishop in his black robes.

Dr. King arrived three hours late and delivered a stirring eulogy for Reverend Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson. As King concluded, Reverend Ralph Abernathy mounted the dais to announce that U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Thomas of Mobile had lifted the injunction and permitted the march to the Dallas County Courthouse to proceed. The shocked congregants cheered and wept with joy at the prophetic-like pronouncement as they prepared for the long-awaited march to the courthouse.

Just outside the doorway of the chapel, King paused to shake hands and speak briefly with Archbishop Iakovos, whom he remembered meeting on his first trip abroad to Geneva, Switzerland when Iakovos served as a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate ten years before. Iakovos later commented that he and Dr. King had walked along Lake Geneva together and remembered how surprised people were to see a black minister for the first time.

As they embarked, a little six- or seven-year-old black girl looked up at the distinguished archbishop in his black robes, held his hand, and told him not to worry. Iakovos later remembered looking at this young girl and thought she wanted to ask, “Will the day ever come when I’ll be able to hold any white person’s hand and walk with them?”

At 5:08 PM the procession of nearly 4,000, walking three abreast, began from the steps of Brown Chapel and proceeded through a white neighborhood until it reached the downtown district where the Dallas County Courthouse was located. Dr. King held a purple and white wreath and led the march with Archbishop Iakovos on one side and Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and Andrew Young on the other.

The eight-block route took approximately twenty-five minutes to walk. Hundreds of reporters and cameramen followed the solemn procession to the courthouse steps. The police formed a protective ring around the marchers as they advanced. Car horns blared from angry motorists at each intersection as the procession passed, undoubtedly protesting both the obstruction to traffic and its purpose. “As we walked toward the courthouse, there were so many ugly faces staring at us,” Iakovos told a New York Times reporter. “The whites’ spirits were so poisoned by hate and bias. But when you believe in the rightness of what you’re doing, you discount fear.”

The presence of hundreds of police officers and the many clergy of all faiths contributed to the peacefulness of the march. As Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times reported, “Most of the whites who ventured onto the street seemed almost awed by the sight of so many ministers, priests and nuns among the marchers.

Except for one man who spat in the lens of a TV camera and another who shouted ‘Go to hell’ from a nearby service station, there were no incidents. Several whites along the route stood in doorways of buildings and laughed when they saw cameramen running ahead of yet another in a long series of protest marches here. The laughs faded and the expressions of many changed to awe when they saw the imposing figure of Archbishop Iakovos, his dark eyes as bright as the gold top of the staff he carried, his beard gray and his thick eyebrows as dark as his flowing vestments.”

Just as Dr. King, Archbishop Iakovos, and the other dignitaries reached the courthouse steps, they turned and faced the thousands who had followed them. A Life Magazine journalist photographed this historic moment, which appeared on the front cover of the magazine’s March 26, 1965 issue. Before Dr. King spoke, Sheriff Jim Clark locked the doors from the inside and turned off the lights of the courthouse.

The marchers assembled on Alabama Avenue between the courthouse and the federal building surrounded by police. Two hundred white spectators assembled across the street. Dr. King delivered a brief eulogy while a car horn blared in the background as he spoke. He followed his eulogy with a prayer for Reverend Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and other fallen civil rights martyrs. The memorial concluded with all singing “We Shall Overcome.” As darkness settled and the service ended, the people dispersed back to Brown Chapel. When they had gone, the courthouse door was unlocked and a hand reached from behind it to remove the wreath and to lock the doors again.

With the events in Selma concluded, Archbishop Iakovos and Fr. Bacopoulos departed: His Eminence to South Carolina and Fr. Bacopoulos back to New York City. His Eminence issued a statement to the press that read in part, “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 time again…”

Archbishop Iakovos flew to Charleston, South Carolina, his first time visiting the Greek Orthodox community of approximately one hundred twenty families. Later that evening, alone in his hotel room, His Eminence received threatening phone calls throughout the night, expressing their anger and opposition to his presence in Selma earlier that day.

However, Iakovos soon disregarded the disappointing phone calls when he watched President Lyndon Johnson introduce his voting rights bill to Congress that same evening. Iakovos believed that the president’s address was a direct result of the events that had transpired in Selma that day, of which he felt blessed to be a participant.

The next day, Iakovos sent a telegram to President Johnson “expressing the feelings of gratitude and admiration of my people.” He also delivered remarks on CBS’s nationwide radio program The World Tonight saying that, “the commitment that our President made before our nation last night renews the faith of our people in equality, democracy and human dignity. The orderly demonstration in Selma yesterday guarantees the peaceful solution to the problem that has done so much damage to the image of the United States here and abroad….”

Upon returning to the Archdiocese in New York City, Archbishop Iakovos received many letters both in support and in opposition to his presence in Selma. Though the number of letters in support of his Selma appearance far outnumbered those in opposition, he was especially grieved that for the first time in his life, he received threatening letters from his own people, of his own faith, and who “bestow[ed]on me the title of traitor.”

Over the months and years that followed the historic events in Selma, increasing numbers of Americans—both Greek and non-Greek—appreciated and expressed their admiration for Archbishop Iakovos’s role in the civil rights movement. Many scholars and historians consider the events that transpired in Selma that year the crowning moment of the civil rights movement. The marches visually and essentially legitimized the fact that the issue of civil rights was not only an African American cause, but also one shared by all Americans who love freedom and democracy.

Archbishop Iakovos knew that voting did more than give people a voice in their government: voting erased their invisibility. Inspired by his Orthodox Christian faith, Archbishop Iakovos believed that voting was more than a right or an expression of citizenship; it was a declaration of one’s God-created humanity. It was, therefore, just as much a human right as it was a civil right.

His Eminence understood this long before he walked with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma when he himself grew up within a discriminated minority community in Turkey. For him, it was unconscionable that in a land founded on freedom and democracy that inequality and prejudice should prevail. To this end, Archbishop Iakovos labored tirelessly for almost four decades on human and civil rights causes for all peoples, earning him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 from President Jimmy Carter—along with his dear friend, Dr. Martin Luther King.

In the spring of 2015, we shall commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Selma, and His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos’s participation in the historic events that transpired. The Greek Orthodox Church continues to fight against racism, prejudice, and discrimination with fervent love for God and all people. May His Eminence’s memory and all he stood for be eternal.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s special website created to commemorate the Selma anniversary. The site was created by the Office of  Inter-Orthodox Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, headed by Fr. Nathanael Symeonides. The article was written by Fr. Michael Varlamos, Protopresbyter at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in St. Clair Shores, Michigan.