The civil rights movement was an iconic turning point for human rights not only in the United States, but around the world. The movement was a decades-long effort by black Americans to end racial discrimination, disenfranchisement, mob and police lynchings, and segregation of public workplaces and schools.
Pioneers of the movement such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. were instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Although the campaign is largely African-American, it there were other non-blacks. allies who supported civil rights and equality for all. One of the most famous allies was Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Archbishop Yakovos was the primate of North and South America for the Greek Orthodox Church during the Civil Rights Movement (now Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America). Yakovos was a strong supporter of human rights from an early age when he was born in the later years of the Ottoman Empire, which displayed not only intolerance towards ethnic and religious minorities, but also persecutions and generalized genocides, in particular towards Armenians, Assyrians, Maronites and Greeks like him. When the Archbishop heard of Selma’s planned march, he took it upon himself to stand alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. It was a great deal because hardly any other church leader in the United States would openly support the civil rights movement, whether out of fear or a lack of empathy. For example, Rev. James Reed, a white Unitarian pastor, was brutally murdered by white segregationists in Alabama on his way to Selma four days earlier.
Archbishop Yakovos 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 guarantee of protection from the local police or the state, as many sympathized with segregationists or were quietly members of the Klan when not working normally.
Despite the risks, none of this deterred Yakovos and his faith. He traveled to Selma, Alabama, where he immediately bonded with Dr. King himself. The two became very close friends immediately and shared a common bond for mankind and the belief that all were equal under the Lord. The Archbishop and Dr King were both recorded and photographed walking together and Life Magazine published an iconic cover photo on their March 1965 issue. The caption read: “A historic turning point for the cause of the negroes” which means that the actions of non-People Of Color allies like Archbishop Yakovos ultimately helped solidify the civil rights movement and dismantle the Jim Crow system.
Even before Selma, Archbishop Yakovos was a staunch supporter and ally. During the passage of the law in 1964, he declared with joy: “Glory to the highest! May this mark the beginning of a new era for all mankind, an era in which the word of God traces and guides our lives. When Dr King was assassinated in 1968, the Archbishop was deeply moved 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. United and accepting anyone, regardless of ethnicity or background, to be a part of fellowship. Archbishop Iakovos would continue to lead as Archbishop of the Americas until 1996, when a dispute with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I forced him to resign. He would live the rest of his years in a quiet life until his death on April 10, 2005. To this day, the Greek Orthodox Church has always sought and been an ally of those in need, and the actions of the Archbishop Yakovos will be forever immortalized in history.
Julian McBride is a New York-born forensic anthropologist and freelance journalist. He is the founder and director of Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO. It reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflict, rogue geopolitics and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices remain inaudible.