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Guest Viewpoints

The Greek Orthodox Archbishop Who Stood Side by Side with Dr. King

December 11, 2021
By Julian McBride

The Civil Rights Movement was an iconic turning point for human rights in not only the United States, but the entire world. The movement was a decades-long effort by Black Americans to end racial discrimination, disenfranchisement from jobs, lynching’s by mobs and police, and segregation of public work places and schools.

Pioneers of the movement such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. played an instrumental role in getting the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Though the campaign was largely African American, there were other non-Black allies that supported civil rights and equality for all. One of the most famous allies was Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Archbishop Iakovos was the Primate of North and South America for the Greek Orthodox Church during the Civil Rights Movement (now Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America). Iakovos was a staunch supporter of human rights since a young age when he was born in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, which displayed not only intolerance to ethnic and religious minorities, but also widespread persecution and genocide, especially to the Armenians, Assyrians, Maronites, and Greeks like himself. When the Archbishop heard of the planned Selma march, he took it upon himself to stand side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. This was a tremendous deal as hardly any other church leader in the U.S. would openly support the Civil Rights Movement, either out of fear or lack of empathy. For example Reverend James Reed, a white Unitarian Pastor, was brutally murdered by white segregationists in Alabama was he was en route to Selma four days earlier.

Archbishop Iakovos had received numerous death threats for his planned participation in Selma with Dr. King, but none of this deterred him. In 1965, there was no guaranteed protection from the local or state police as many sympathized with segregationists or were quietly Klan members when not working their regular jobs.

Despite the risks, none of this deterred Iakovos and his faith. He made it to Selma, Alabama where he immediately linked up with Dr. King himself. The two became very close friends immediately and shared a common bond for humanity and the belief that all were equal under the Lord. Both the Archbishop and Dr. King were recorded and photographed marching together and Life Magazine posted an iconic cover photo on their March 1965 edition of them both. The caption stated: “Historic Turning Point for the Negro’s Cause,” signifying the actions of non-People Of Color allies like Archbishop Iakovos ultimately helped solidify the Civil Rights Movement and helped dismantle the Jim Crow system.

Even before Selma, Archbishop Iakovos was a staunch supporter and ally. When the Act passed in 1964, he stated joyfully: “Glory to the most high! May this mark the beginning of a new age for all humankind, an era when the word of God charts and guides our lives.” When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, the Archbishop was deeply upset and continued to honor his legacy and the legacy of the Archdiocese by making the Greek Orthodox Church part of the family of religions in the United States and accepting anyone, regardless of ethnicity or background, to become part of the communion. Archbishop Iakovos would continue to lead as the Archbishop of Americas until 1996, when a dispute with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I forced him to resign. He would live out the rest of his years in a quiet life until passing away on April 10th, 2005. To this day, the Greek Orthodox Church has always looked out for and been an ally of those in need, and the actions of Archbishop Iakovos will forever be immortalized in history.

Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices remain unheard. 

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