NEW YORK – Fifty years after the momentous events in Selma, AL that played a pivotal role in race relations in America, the Department for Inter-Orthodox Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of Archdiocese presented a lecture titled “In the Face of Racial Hatred: Archbishop Iakovos and the Civil Rights Movement,” on March 12.
The guests who filled the Ballroom of Holy Trinity Cathedral were welcomed by the Dean, Fr. John Vlahos, and Fr. Nathanael Symeonides, the Director of the Department introduced the featured speaker, Rev. Michael N. Varlamos, pastor of the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church of St. Claire Shores, MI.
The lecture was an enlightening exposition of how Iakovos “aided and participated in the civil rights movements that unexpectedly elevated him and our Archdiocese to national prominence,” Fr. Varlamos said.
While Iakovos’ presence at the side of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been cemented in memory by the iconic Life Magazine cover of March 26, 1965, Fr. Varlamos provided background and perspective that brought the event to life for the audience.
Archbishop Demetrios thanked and congratulated Fr. Varlamos. The Archbishop also revivified one of the great moments of American and Greek-American history when he shared the story of his participation in the recent commemoration in Selma. He made a point of saying that the deep reverence with which he was greeted was a reflection of the powerful impact Archbishop Iakovos has made 50 years ago.
Fr. Varlamos, who first offered an overview of race relations and the struggle for civil rights in America in the 1950s and 1960s, began by making a distinction between history and the past. “The past is something that took place and is inaccessible except through artifacts and document and memories,” the latter of which he noted are not so reliable. “History” he continued, “is an interpretation…a construction of the past.”
He explained that his presentation on the history of Archbishop Iakovos was based strictly on documents and said “It could not have been done without the invaluable service of the archives of the archdiocese,” and thanked Niki Kale for her assistance.
Archbishop Iakovos arrived in America in 1939. During service as a parish priest until 1954, mainly as the Dean of the Cathedral of the Annunciation of Boston until 1954, he developed the profound knowledge of the Greek-American community which fueled his later resolve to transform the Greek Orthodox Church from an isolated immigrant Church to the fourth largest faith in America.
Iakovos was ordained as a bishop in 1954 and until his enthronement as Archbishop of North and South American on April 1, 1959 he served years as personal representative of Patriarch Athenagoras to the World Council of Churches in Geneva.
During his two years as president of the Council he developed close ties with many religious leaders around the world. That is where he first met King. Their second encounter was at Selma, 10 years later.
Iakovos’ relations with American churchmen and his exposure to civil rights issues deepened after he joined the National Council of Churches in 1960 and its Commission on Religion and Race in 1963.
By then he believed “the Orthodox Church had to enter into the American arena of social and political issues and publicly express its opinions…during the early 1960s the most critical domestic issue was race relations.”
PRUDENCE AND PRINCIPLE
During his first four years as archbishop, Iakovos focused his attention on internal issues of the Church.
Although by 1960 the Greek-American community had been integrated into American society after the experiences of prejudice by its first arrivals, Fr. Varlamos said Iakovos was nevertheless “sensitive to the plight of African Americans in their struggle for civil rights. He himself experienced prejudice and discrimination growing up in Turkey.”
His personal views about the civil rights struggle were founded on his belief “that all human beings, regardless of race, were created in the image of God, and thus believed that all were equally deserving of human and civil rights.”
Of particular interest was Fr. Varlamos’ description of the challenge Iakovos faced in not only harmonizing his personal views with his fellow Greek’s who were opposed to civil rights but his pastoral concern about the dangers he might expose his flock to, especially in the deep South where the Ku Klux Klan felt no compunction about bombing churches.
Nevertheless even prior to Iakovos’ tenure, the Archdiocese expressed its opposition to racism and segregation.
On the occasion of Race Relations Sunday in 1962 Iakovos urged parishes to fight racism and the Archdiocesan representatives issued statement in support of desegregation.
On the other hand Iakovos decided not to participate in the mass civil rights march on Washington on August 28. He was among many leaders, clergy and even John F. Kennedy, who were concerned it would provoke violence. Iakovos told the LA Times “civil rights demonstrations can be futile if there is not a concurrent change in the human heart.”
After a church bombing that killed four little girls however, the Archdiocese finally issued its official Greek Orthodox statement on racial equality in a press release on Sept. 28, 1963.
That statement, along with other historic documents, can be found at www.civilirghts.goarch.org.
President Kennedy was unable to pass civil rights legislation before his assassination, but when his successor, Lyndon Johnson was able to push through the Civil Rights Act ending segregation 100 years after the abolition of slavery, Iakovos wrote in an encyclical to his priests “It is our duty to enlighten and to try to convince the Christians we serve that the enforcement of this law is a sacred obligation. Equality is not a political doctrine; it is a Christian axiom…”
But the civil rights struggle was not over. African-Americans in the South were being systematically deprived of their right to vote, which led to the march in Selma that culminated in attacks by state troopers and others on March 7, 1965 – Bloody Sunday.
Participants in a march two days later which included a throng of clergy did not encounter violence, but that evening James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, was murdered.
On March 13 Rev. Robert Spike of the National Council of Churches telegrammed Iakovos and invited him to attend Reeb’s memorial service.
“His Eminence consulted with his staff and advisors, who strongly recommended he not attend due to the violent atmosphere in Alabama,” Fr. Varlamos said.
Iakovos ignored them. On Monday March 15, he and the chancellor, Fr. George Bacopoulos, who did urge him to go, flew to Alabama.
As the highest ranking cleric, Iakovos was invited to the dais, and Fr. Varlamos said “His Eminence remembered how surprised local African-Americans were to see a Greek Orthodox Archbishop in his black robes.”
After delivering a stirring eulogy and prior to the march to the Dallas County Courthouse, where a wreath was to be laid, “King paused to shake hands and speak briefly to Archbishop Iakovos,” whom he recalled meeting in Geneva.
“Dr. King held a purple and white wreath and led the march with Archbishop Iakovos on one side and Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young on the other,” and procession of nearly 4000 people ran the gauntlet of rage and spite as it passed through a white neighborhood.
That was the moment captured by Life magazine.
“As we walked to the courthouse, there were so many ugly faces staring at us,” Iakovos told a New York Times reporter. “The white’s spirits were so poisoned by hate and bias, but when you believe in the righteousness of what you are doing,” he added, “you discount fear.”
His courage earned Iakovos the Medal of Freedom, which was presented by President Jimmy Carter, and the enduring esteem of millions.