On March 26, 1965, LIFE Magazine featured an iconic photo on its cover of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos marching with Dr. Martin Luther Jr.
Sixteen days earlier, the events that gave rise to that photo took place in Selma, Alabama. On March 11, 1965, white American Unitarian Universalist minister James Reed was brutally clubbed to death by segregationists while marching for civil rights. Days later, Archbishop Iakovos would travel to Selma and march arm in arm with King for equality. The photo on LIFE’s cover is of Archbishop Iakovos marching with King as King holds a wreath for Reed’s memorial service.
Professor Albert J. Raboteau at Fordham University, Bronx, reported that “[a]s the congregation waited for King to arrive for the service, distinguished leaders, who had gathered from around the country (including Archbishop Iakovos) eulogized Reeb and linked arms to sing “We Shall Overcome” and other movement hymns.” This was what Archbishop Iakovos said that day:
“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 again….The ways of God are not always revealed to us, but certainly His choice of this dedicated minister to be the victim of racial hatred and the hero of this struggle to gain unalienable constitutional rights for those American brethren of ours who are denied them, and to die, so to speak, on this battlefield for human dignity and equality, was not accidental or haphazard. Let us seek out in this tragedy a divine lesson for all of us. The Reverend Reeb felt he could not be outside the arena of this bitter struggle, and we, too, must feel that we cannot. Let his martyrdom be an inspiration and a reminder to us that there are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for those basic American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, without which this land cannot survive. Our hope and prayer, then, is that we may be given strength to let God know by our acts and deeds, and not only by our words, that like the late Reverend James Reeb, we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.”
Raboteau also recalls one touching moment:
I am haunted by one detail of Archbishop Iakovos’ visit to Selma: the moment at Brown Chapel when that small black girl took his hand and told him not to worry. I wonder what the Archbishop thought. Did he perhaps recall Jesus’ words: “for of such as these is the kingdom of heaven”?
Racism and intolerance are indeed learned, which is why the actions of Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Iakovos and all of those who have fought for civil rights and equality ring so relevant today.
Archbishop Iakovos with Coretta Scott King and Sen. Paul Sarbanes (MD). Photo: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
Many Greeks have seen that iconic LIFE cover. Not all appreciate the courage it took for a Greek Orthodox leader at that time to stand arm in arm with African-American leaders. Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, would in 2005 highlight how important it was to have the support of Archbishop Iakovos:
“At a time when many of the nation’s most prominent clergy were silent, Archbishop Iakovos courageously supported our Freedom Movement and marched alongside my husband, and he continued to support the nonviolent movement against poverty, racism and violence throughout his life.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. himself repeatedly stressed that silence and inaction in the face of injustice was a “betrayal,” noting that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Archbishop Iakovos later explained that it was that obligation to speak up that led him to Selma:
“We have fought oppressive and repressive political regimes, based on Christian principles, for centuries. . . . A Christian must cry out in indignation against all persecution. That’s what made me walk with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. We are all responsible, and must continue to speak out.”
Greek Americans and people all over the world have been troubled by the rise of racism and radicalism in Greece (see yesterday’s New York Times profile of the recent attacks here). Those twin evils don’t only exist in Greece; across the world, including here at home in America, there is much work to be done to combat such intolerance. In Greece, citizens are standing up. On Saturday, thousands of concerned Greeks marched in the streets of Athens to protest fascism, racism and xenophobia. Around the world, people are not staying silent. They are continuing, as Archbishop Iakovos said, to “cry out in indignation against all persecution.”
PHOTOS: Images of that historic day in Selma, courtesy of the The Jack Rabin Collection on Alabama Civil Rights and Southern Activists: