Martin Luther King is celebrated today as a timeless symbol of the struggle against racism. The 1965 march of the courageous civil rights leader in Selma, Alabama was not only a turning point in his career and in American history, however; it was also a landmark moment for the participation of Greek Americans and the Orthodox Church in the making of the modern United States.
Alongside Dr. King in that pivotal moment for civil rights marched Archbishop of the Americas Iakovos, putting the Greek Orthodox faith at the forefront of the struggle for human rights during a turbulent time for American society.
Iakovos, who had experienced religious oppression himself as a child, was a zealous supporter of human and civil rights and backed King’s cause with his actions — a rarity among the high clergy from any denomination in those days.
He became the only church leader who had the courage to walk hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King during that famous march in Selma.
Unlike other church leaders, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop walked side by side with King in Selma, where civil rights marchers rallied against segregation and for equal voting rights.
Threats for standing with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma
Back in 1965, such actions were not common, and definitely not protected. “Iakovos had received threats,” says one close aide and friend of the Archbishop, “but he never thought twice of his decision.”
When Iakovos died in 2005, King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, said: “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.”
The LIFE magazine cover of March 26, 1965 marked that historical moment, showing a formidable-looking Iakovos standing to King’s right. (The entire magazine is online and can be read here.)
The New York Times reported: “The striking cover of Time magazine that showed Dr. King side by side with the black-garbed Archbishop Iakovos marked a new presence of Greek Americans and the Greek Orthodox Church in American life.”
Iakovos had been an avid supporter of the 1964 Civil Rights Act even before the march in Selma. When the bill was eventually passed, he exclaimed: “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.”
The life of Archbishop Iakovos
Iakovos served the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America for 37 years, until his sudden and unexpected retirement in 1996. In an interview in 1995, he said he had accomplished a major goal — “to have the Orthodox Church be accepted by the family of religions in the United States”.
He said that among his accomplishments he rates as highest the recognition of Orthodox chaplains in the U.S. armed forces and the dialogue he established with leaders of the Episcopal, Lutheran, Southern Baptist and black churches, as well as with Judaism and Islam.
According to the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States, he was born Demetrios Koukouzis on the island of Imvros on July 29, 1911. At age 15, he enrolled in the Ecumenical Patriarchal Theological School of Halki.
After graduating with high honors, he was ordained deacon in 1934, taking the ecclesiastical name Iakovos. In 1939, Deacon Iakovos was invited to serve as Archdeacon to Archbishop Athenagoras, the Primate of North and South America.
Ordained a priest in 1940 in Lowell, Massachusetts, he served at St. George Church, Hartford, Connecticut. A year later he was named Preacher at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York City. In 1945 he earned a Master of Sacred Theology Degree from Harvard University.
In 1954, he was ordained Bishop of Miletus, by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, for whom he served four years as personal representative of the Patriarchate to the World Council of Churches in Geneva. In February 1959, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate elected Iakovos as successor to Archbishop Michael, who died July 15, 1958, as primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He was enthroned April 1, 1959, assuming responsibility for over 500 parishes in the United States at the time.
Iakovos continued his efforts to advance the idea of equality among his communicants throughout his life. In 1980, Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Archbishop and his support to Dr. King was portrayed in the Ana Duvernay Film “Selma.” Watch the director talk about this in an exclusive interview: