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The Church and the March on Washington: "Leaping into the air for joy"

Yesterday I posted some excerpts from Francis E. Kearns's report on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, fifty years ago this week. Joseph Komonchak's comment on that post fills in some very interesting background on how the U.S. bishops were responding to the issues of civil rights, especially in preparation for the Second Vatican Council.

Today, some excerpts from Robert McAfee Brown's article "The Race Race," published October 11, 1963 (and slugged "A Protestant View"). Brown -- at that time a regular Commonweal columnist, a professor of religion at Stanford, and "an official observer at the Second Session of the Council" -- shared Kearns's impatience with white Christians who, he felt, were too slow in joining the fight for racial equality as their faith compelled them to do.

1963 will go down in the year in which the white Christian churches visibly and tangibly began to involve themselves in the racial struggle. That there were sporadic involvements before 1963 on the part of the churches and churchmen is obviously true. There were many fine statements by Protestant church bodies and by Roman Catholic bishops. Certain southern parochial schools were integrated. Certain church people made brave stands. A few were even arrested. But until the summer of 1963 one did not have much sense that the white churches had really thrown in their lot with the Negro. As Eugene Carson Blake said in his speech at the March on Washington, churchmen could only participate in such a gathering penitently, for they have not been leading the fight but have been lurking in the rear.

So it is not particularly to the credit of the churches that the date of their active involvement will be read by future historians as 1963. It can be plausibly argued that this date is just one hundred years too late. It can be even more plausibly argued that it is well over three hundred years too late. It may be that it will be too late to redeem the church's bad record, and too late to convince the secular fighters for civil rights that Christians now mean business; eleventh-hour aid is not always appreciated by those who have had to fight alone in the heat of the day, particularly when such aid comes only after the tide of battle has already turned. Nevertheless the churches, who must care more about being right than being victorious, are now committed to acting and not merely to speaking.

I do not know how Roman Catholics react to seeing pictures of nuns on picket lines or priests getting arrested. My own reaction is one of gratitude and joy that such symbols of the involvement of the church in the plight of the dispossessed are now becoming visible....

[I]t is high time more churchmen -- clerical and lay -- recognized that the battle for civil rights is not the Negroes' battle alone, but the white man's battle as well, and that for the white churchman to take his place alongside his Negro brother is only a very minimal way of beginning to demonstrate his involvement and solidarity. We white people are responsible for the plight of the Negroes. it is more than time that we stood beside them as they fight to free themselves of the shackles we have placed around them.

In Brown's view, the "incredible patience" and commitment to non-violence of African-Americans was not likely to last much longer, and any loss of momentum after the march could have dire consequences. "The race race is a race between one of two transformations -- the transformation of the white man's hatred into love, or the transformation of the Negro's love into hatred."

So we must not expect things to "slow down," even if Congress should pass a bill surpassing our wildest hopes. We must expect and even hope that pressures
and demonstrations will continue and multiply and accelerate, and that the churches will be found in the forefront of this continuing struggle. For if they are not, and Christians continue to equivocate on this issue -- where Christian teaching, both Catholic and Protestant, is absolutely clear and unambiguous -- then the church will have lost her right to speak to our generation on other issues, and not all the Vatican Councils nor all the Pope's men can hope to set her right again.

Brown also offered this description of the march's most iconic moment:

During Martin Luther King's speech, which was certainly the emotional climax of the long afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial, there was a growing wave of enthusiasm. We were about two-thirds of the way down the reflecting basin, and with his refrains, "I have a dream..." and "'Let freedom ring...," there were increasing signs of excitement in the Negroes among us. I noticed one youngster near us who by the end of the speech was literally leaping into the air for joy at the picture of the future that Dr. King painted. Perhaps it is a fitting comment on the day that "leaping into the air for joy" was the closest thing I saw to what is sometimes defined as disorderly conduct.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Those were indeed exceptional days when the clergy veered from its empire and was truer to the gospel. It did not come without a lot of arm twisting. When Ted Hesburgh got on Protestant ministers for not supporting civil rights the ministers responded by saying: "The people will kill us." It was a great time. But I do not applaud those who got on the band wagon because it was fashionable. Those "followers" changed as the wind changed. Even today so many registration laws are geared to prevent minorities and the poor from voting. 

We cannot gloat at those times without feeling a deep sense failure at the lack of peace and justice in our own time. The war in Iraq which almost all acknowledge as based on conscious lies. So many moderates supported that awful war. Today in Egypt and Syrias bloodbaths are happening and will get worse. Africa's fratricides have been continuing. Yet the voice of Christian leaders is dim while they are more into "freedom of religion" when so many are afraid to visit the butcher for fear of dying. 

Catholics and other Christians are still caught up in filling their coffers for the future and justice is supposedly satisfied with some donations. We have to address the present constant killings that are going on. Not wait till it becomes fashionable. 

Mollie - what a wonderful post.  And a prescient article.   Thank you.

When I look at the state of the black citizen today, fifty years after the beginnings of "The Great Society" and "The war on Poverty", here's what I see:

Hundreds of thousands of virtually fatherless  young black men.

The illegitamcy rate among black women and girls over 70% (see above).

Black-on-black murder rates far exceeding white-on-black murder rates (see above).

A corrupt black subculture that exalts immorality and viciously attacks blacks attempting to live lives of traditional morality and studiousness.

And then I look at the state of the white citizen today, I see young whites eagerly trying to emulate the black subculture (and beginning to succeed), I realize the extent of the depravity of contemporary liberalism.  If that sounds harsh, it is harsh.  But it is what it is.

It is what it is, Bob, but "harsh" isn't the word I'd use.


And your point is?

But it is not what Bob says it is. Many more blacks in government, in business, education entertainment etc. The more blacks in jail is a result of absolute stupidity and moral corruption. Everyone is now aware of the massive failure of the prison system. Neither conservative nor liberal has a lock on depravity. We just went through a worse depression than the one in the thirties because of the greed of the banks and the concept of shareholder as God. To obsess on blacks is pure folly. Etc.

What happened to the great promise of the civil rights movement was that it was sabotaged by the moral depravity of contemporary liberalism, by which I mean the great broad concatenation of political, moral, and religious changes that came to power in the late sixties and throughout the seventies.   "If it feels good, do it."  "God is dead; everything is permitted."  "There are no individuals, only classes."  "Everyone has an absolute right to generous government assistance",  Marmalade skies, LSD, cocaine, meth, pot, mushrooms---we all know what went on.  Bill, you know all this, and you know I'm right.  Face it.

I've been around as long as you, Bob, and the closest I have every heard anyone come to speaking those catchphrases that trip so easily off your computer is, "If God is dead everything is permitted." It was a slogan of priests of left, right and middle during the muddle that was created by Time selling magazines with a story on the outer reaches of theological speculation.

I never heard anything close to the other stuff except when Rush was giving examples of what he takes to be the "liberal agenda."

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