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 history...as 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.