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Seminarian's civil rights action inspired following classes

Forty years after a four-day trip to Selma to support Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, efforts to promote voting rights, the Rev. Jim Burford learned that action had more significance than he had known.

Chicago Theological Seminary had held up the model of 14 students who went as a challenge for future seminarians to bear witness to their faith in their times.

Jim Burford's commitment to civil rights
The Rev. Jim Burford

In 2005, Jim and Sue went to Chicago for the 40th reunion of those who went to Selma as part of the CTS summer ministers’ convocation.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a classmate who formed Breadbasket and the Rainbow Coalition, spoke.

“I was interested that faculty and classes after us considered us heroes for going to Selma,” Jim said.  “They saw it as critical in the history of the civil rights movement.

“It was an example of the people-oriented, social-justice-oriented ministry that was part of the seminary’s commitment.  Along with training people to be pastors and teachers, CTS taught that pastors need to extend their faith into the world and all its messiness,” he said.

The long-term perspective had not entered Jim’s thoughts in 1965 when he was deciding whether to go.  He thought only of his fear about the danger and repercussions.

While his ministry has focused on pastoral care, he knows social justice concerns often emerge from pastoral concerns.

Growing up in a Disciples family in the Central Valley of California, he had moved while his father was in the Navy in World War II from New York to Miami and back to California.  In Sacramento, Jim completed high school and two years of college, before studying at the University of California at Davis. 

He and his wife, Sue, were active in the campus ministry, through which they tutored farm workers’ children nearby. 

Jim described his call to and journey in ministry as “trusting and meandering, taking a step, then looking back.”

After graduating from Davis in psychology in 1964, he went to Chicago Theological Seminary.

The spring of his first year there, Martin Luther King, Jr., called for clergy and seminarians to come to Selma, Ala., to support his work for voter registration.

Jim talked with classmates.  It was close to finals.  They worried about the impact of going on their grades and future plans.

“For some there was no question.  They had to go.  Some did not comprehend the significance.  Some decided to stay,” Jim said.  “We had less than two days to decide, not enough time to reflect.  I was pulled in two directions.”

Jim talked with Sue and with another couple from the West Coast, Gary and Betty Massoni. They had stayed at CTS over Christmas and become close friends.   

They decided to go.  Jim drove his Volkswagen bus. Jesse, the only black seminarian, took his Corvair.  There was one white woman and a Japanese woman.  The rest were white men, typical of 1960s seminary populations.  It took nearly two days to drive to Selma.

“When we entered the South, Jesse moved from the driver’s seat to the back seat of his car, aware that for a black man to drive or sit in the front seat would draw attention,” Jim said. “When we entered Alabama, a state patrol car began to tail us.”

The group stayed in the black section of Selma, Jim’s first experience in a poor black community.  The students slept in their cars or on the grass.  They rarely left that section, because Selma residents seemed angry at them.

The several hundred clergy and seminarians who went wore clerical collars or white shirts and ties to identify them as church leaders.  They knew others had been injured or killed there.  They had signed forms and given names of relatives in case of violence.

Each morning, they gathered in Brown Chapel to sing, pray and hear King preach.

“The worship was a rally to build our courage,” Jim said.

Leaving the chapel, they lined up—about six to eight wide for two blocks—and then walked to where Alabama State Patrol cars blocked the street.  King, Ralph Abernathy, CTS President Howard Schomer and other leaders talked with the police.

“We waited.   We stood, sang and conversed.  We talked about it being our first experience of this kind and about what we would do if the police attacked us with clubs,” Jim said. “We had been told to drop and cover, to say nothing, to protect ourselves and remain nonviolent in response to any provocation. We talked about how scared we were.”

Jim hoped his skills in avoiding contact with other players in high school football would help him as he stood up for the civil rights of his black brothers and sisters.

They waited two hours, dispersed for a break, met again at the church, stood in line and waited again while leaders talked.

On one break, Jim and a friend walked around the shack homes. They stopped and sat on the front porch to talk with a woman. Only in the black neighborhood did they feel safe.

 “Our goal was simply to walk as a group across Petit Bridge into town, stop at the steps of the courthouse to pray and then leave,” Jim said.  “After several days, we were allowed to do it.”

They walked on the side of the road, passing by state patrol officers every 10 feet on each side and people shouting and jeering as they passed.

“We were not to respond to obscenities they shouted.  We stayed together as a group.  Once we crossed the bridge and went through the gauntlet, we prayed at the courthouse and came back to Brown Chapel.

“We felt relieved that we did what we came to do,” Jim said.

Soon after that, the CTS students decided to head back.

Later, the March from Selma to Montgomery made the news.  Thousands joined it, in contrast to several hundred clergy crossing the bridge that spring day.

“It was one of the first marches for voting rights,” said Jim.  “It was a small event, but for those involved it was as important as the March from Selma to Montgomery.  Our march into downtown Selma was a step that made the later march possible.”

They drove back without stopping. He and Gary shared their experiences with their wives. Gary later worked with Breadbasket and the Rainbow Coalition, so Jim has kept in touch with that work.

Jim did not tell his parents until he returned.  He wrote a long letter, uncertain how they—with a more conservative theology than his—would respond. 

His parents were proud and took his letter, about what he did and why to the Santa Rosa, Calif., newspaper.  It ran an article on the local young man who joined the civil rights movement in Selma.

“My upbringing generated a commitment to the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters and a commitment to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue,” said Jim.

The summer of 1965, Jim worked with black children in a community Christian education and day-care program, learning about their lives.

Jim spent his third year on an internship with a Church of Scotland congregation.  After graduating in 1968, Jim served nearly five years at a Disciples church in Stockton, working with Filipino, Japanese, Chinese and black Presbyterian and Methodist churches doing community action, including starting a food bank and promoting racial justice.

After serving two years as youth minister of a Disciples and United Church of Christ church in Modesto, he became pastor at the Christian Church in Ephrata, where he was involved in ecumenical and regional ministries.

Coming to Spokane in 1988, he served six years as pastor of Covenant Christian Church and seven years as associate regional minister for the Northwest Region of the Disciples of Christ.

Jim participated in the South Hill Ecumenical Ministerial Association, the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries, the Martin Luther King Family Outreach Center, Camp PEACE anti-bigotry training and Rotary.

Recently he has done interim ministries at Kennewick Christian, Clarkston Christian, Millwood Presbyterian and now Emmanuel Presbyterian. 

Jim has helped church members join in the community, ecumenical and interfaith outreach addressing societal issues, standing up to say, “Stop!” to injustices.

For information, call 448-7804.


Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © May 2007