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The Church and the March on Washington: "Blessing the prophets"

For our last look back at Commonweal's take on the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, let's see what the editors had to say. The September 20, 1963 issue included an editorial titled "Rejecting Respectability" in which the editors concurred with the judgment of Francis E. Kearns (in that same issue) and Robert McAfee Brown (published October 11) that the Catholic church and other religious bodies had taken a significant step forward in supporting the cause of racial equality.

To be sure, almost all of the major church bodies have for some years now been issuing statements calling for racial justice. No doubt these statements were of some value. Yet if one candidly asks exactly what good these statements did, it might not be easy to give an answer. Compared with the progress forced by court action or with that gained by the Freedom Riders, the sit-ins, the picket lines and the peaceful demonstrations, the formal religious statements seem almost inconsequential. It is actions, not words, which have counted. And it was the presence of high church leaders, including Archbishop O'Boyle of Washington, at the August 28th march which counted for more than what they said.

There is a more subtle moral here than may meet the eye. For some years now, sociologists of American religion have been pointing out that one of the main functions of the churches in our society has been to preserve the status quo. No one, of course, has paid much attention to them. In theory, the role of the churches is that of calling men and institutions to transcend the manners and mores of the marketplace. In practice, however, the churches have been part and parcel of that marketplace....

Apart from the Courts and the Department of Justice, the only effective moral leadership came from the demonstrators. Unlike the churches and the general public, they were not content with that patient gradualism so dear to the hearts of right thinking, moderate men of good will. They were not content to wait for that unknown day in the future when the warm winds of justice would melt the icy hearts of segregationists. Naturally, these demonstrators came from the fringe elements in our society: Negro leaders, Negro students, white professors and liberal ministers, civil rights fanatics and impatient white students -- in short, from those known to be perennial troublemakers. Needless to say, one rarely found priests or nuns in with such a crowd -- those so inclined were quietly kept to the straight, narrow and respectable by their bishop.

I suppose it is part of the legacy of Vatican II, or of the '60s in general, that I can now easily imagine priest and nuns -- nuns especially -- among the ranks of the troublemakers where social justice is concerned.

The editors went on:

With all these things in mind, it is not too rash to suggest that the imposing sight of the two-hundred thousand demonstrators was matched by the spectacle of a Catholic archbishop, an Episcopalian bishop and a high Jewish leader arm-in-arm (figuratively) with Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Joan Baez, James Baldwin and the leaders of CORE. One could hardly imagine a more unlikely assembly.

But what this latter group had taught the former was that the real passion for justice and the courage of effective action was coming from those outside the normal channels of America's moral consciousness. Though they might object to some of the demonstrators, some of the methods of peaceful protest, some of the language of the protesters, the presence of high churchmen was a tacit admission that not they, but those to whom they spoke, were the actual moral leaders. It was that rarest of rarities: the priest blessing the prophets.

The editors concluded their take with a warning: the churches

ought to have learned that the Negro is rightfully impatient, that he is not going to stand by for years waiting for white ministers and priests to educate the moral conscience of their people. They ought to know that, if they do not keep pace with the zeal and energy and sense of indignation felt by the militant Negro, they run the risk of being counted among the enemies of the Negro.

James O'Gara -- who was an editor of the magazine at the time, and whose personal commitment to racial equality was commemorated in his New York Times obituary ten years ago -- echoed that warning in his column "Race Against Time," which ran in the November 1, 1963 issue (the delay, he explained, was due to his having been in Rome -- covering the council, I presume). In response to a study on racial equality and perceptions of race in Newsweek, O'Gara wrote:

The day of small goals is gone. The new Negro wants nothing less than equality. He wants the right to vote in practice as well as in theory; he wants equal job opportunities; he wants integrated and equal educational opportunities for his children; he wants to live in integrated neighborhoods....

In the end, however, the rate of Negro progress depends very much on the attitudes of whites, who constitute ninety percent of the population. On this score the picture that emerges from the Newsweek study goes in two directions. The white man's intelligence tells him all men are equal; his emotions tell him the Negro is "different." "The white man is eternally torn between the right that he knows and the wrong that he does." There it is, then, what Gunnar Myrdal called the American dilemma, the contrast between the American dream and American practice....

By a two-to-one margin white Americans hold that Negroes are moving "too fast." They accept the idea of demonstrations in general, but strongly object to picketing, boycotts, sit-ins and lie-downs. They support Federal legislation on housing and job opportunity, but President Kennedy's role in racial matters has hurt him significantly with white voters. Whites support "good" housing for Negroes, but they do not want a Negro living next door. Most whites fear and shun social contacts with Negroes, and the reaction on interracial dating and marriage is overwhelmingly negative.

...Are there, in all this, any signs of hope? There is one definite encouraging sign. The hard core of prejudiced whites consists of roughly one out of five. Among the rest, whites who have had social, vocational or educational contacts with Negroes are significantly less prejudiced on almost every issue except intermarriage. For example, while forty-eight percent of whites who have never known a Negro socially would object to their children's bringing a Negro child home to dinner, only seventeen percent of those who have known Negroes would be concerned. Furthermore, younger Americans are clearly less prejudiced than their elders, and this is a hopeful sign.

It is hard for me to read this and not hear echoes of the current struggle for acceptance among gays, and the rapidly changing social attitudes about homosexuality. Not for nothing is the gay-rights movement often compared to the African-American civil-rights struggle of the '60s. (In his blog post this week commemorating the march, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. -- a successor of Archbishop O'Boyle -- attempted a reverse comparison, one I think he probably shouldn't have pursued.) The parallel isn't exact, but it's not frivolous either. And I personally think there is once again reason to worry that the church will be left too far behind to catch up.