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From Westport To Selma: 50 Years Of Activism

Denny Davidoff will be 83 years old tomorrow.  The longtime Westport Unitarian Church member and social justice fighter celebrated last weekend with a trip to Alabama.

She spent three days in Birmingham, at a Unitarian Universalist conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” beating of civil rights workers in Selma. Workshop topics ranged from history and racism to Ferguson, nonviolence and “the new Jim Crow.” Speakers included Dr. Bernice King, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rev. William Barber.

The UU church was intimately involved in the 1965 voting rights struggle. Both Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo — a lay volunteer — were killed in Selma-related incidents.

On Sunday, Davidoff and several thousand other Americans — of all ages, races, religions and backgrounds — walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The emotional event featured songs, music, and loudspeakers that broadcast Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Selma speech from 1965.

Denny Davidoff took this photo, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The #IamViola sign refers to Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian mother of 5 from Detroit. In 1965 she was gunned down in Alabama, after offering African Americans a ride following a march.

It was an inspiring 4 days for Davidoff, who remembers watching the brutal events in Selma as they happened half a century ago, with her husband Jerry.

The weekend showed Davidoff “how far we’ve come, and how much there still is to do. We need to embrace more, and do some more butt-kicking.”

For Davidoff, Selma was another link in a lifetime chain of activism. One current project: She’s raising money to train a new generation of UU ministers to “understand the need to reach out beyond congregations, and work with our hearts with everyone.”

Denny Davidoff (right) and Olivia Holmes, in Selma. Rev. Holmes, a former Westporter, was ordained as a Unitarian minister following a career in advertising. She now lives in New Hampshire. The bridge retains the name of Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general. After the Civil War he became Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan — and a US senator.

Randy Burnham was also part of the UU conference. A 1962 Staples graduate, now a psychologist with a practice in Westport, he’s a veteran of the 1963 March on Washington.

“I went down to get reinvigorated,” Burnham says. “I wanted to figure out how, as a white man, I can continue to assist as an ally in the freedom movement.”

In Birmingham, he was moved by discussions of recent attempts to cut back on voters’ rights — a key focus of the Selma marches, 50 years ago.

“This is not a black/white, rich/poor, Democratic/Republican issue,” he says. “It is a moral issue. We need non-violent resistance to make sure our rights are not stolen.”

Three Westporters gathered in Birmingham for workshops sponsored by the Unitarian Universalists. Rev. Barbara Fast (left) formerly served at Westport’s Unitarian Church; she’s now the minister in Danbury. Denny Davidoff (center) has been active in Westport’s UU church — and social justice issues — for decades. Rev. Debra Haffner of Westport is on the right.

Late yesterday afternoon, Rev. Debra Haffner was still trying to process all she’d seen and heard. The president and CEO of Westport-based Religious Institute — and community minister of the Westport Unitarian Church — she had been to Selma before. She’d met people who were at the marches 50 years ago, and had known some of the men and women who were murdered.

“I had to go back,” she says.

Rev. Debra Haffner and Rev. Orloff Miller. He and Rev. James Reeb were beaten with clubs in 1965. Rev. Reeb died from his injuries.

On the Edmund Pettus Bridge — surrounded by over 600 Unitarians, all wearing yellow shirts — Haffner was “very aware of my role as an ally. I felt great pride that this movement I am now part of was there 50 years ago, too.”

Haffner took this message home yesterday: “Selma is now. We are not done. We do not live in a ‘post-racial’ society.

“People in communities like ours — like Westport — need to look at white privilege. We need to stand up, and stand with the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Just as the Unitarians — and many other Americans — stood, and marched, in Selma 50 years ago.

(Hat tip: Doug Davidoff)

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