The crowd at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

The year 1963 will go down in history as the year of the test-ban treaty, and, perhaps even more significantly, as the year of major civil rights uprisings. If it is remembered for Averell Harriman and Khrushchev embracing one another, it will also be remembered for Bull Connor's police dogs engaging in another kind of embrace with human flesh, for the murder of Medgar Evers, for the incredible inanities of Governor Wallace, for the mass arrests of Negro children, for the forthright speech by President Kennedy which broke ten years of apparent White House unconcern about civil rights, for the amazing March on Washington—and for dozens of other such events.

It will also 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 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. That Eugene Carson Blake, the highest ranking official of my own denomination (a kind of Presbyterian equivalent, I suppose, of an archbishop), was recently arrested for protesting discrimination in a Baltimore amusement park, says more to me about the health of the church in high places than any of the fine pronouncements that have come from his office. That Bishop Daniel Corrigan of the Episcopal Church was arrested at the same time, is reassurance that he is not prepared to let his denomination perpetuate the image of itself as the church of the privileged white upper classes. That dozens, even hundreds, of ministers have been arrested in metropolitan New York this summer for trying to protest hiring and on-the-job discrimination in the building industries, is at least initial evidence that churchmen are turning from ethereal words to mundane acts. And I am sure that the sacral quality of Christian living is to be found precisely in the mundane. The Word, after all, was made flesh.  

I am not trying to suggest that there is any particular virtue in getting oneself arrested, or that it is enough for a few clergy to fight the battles in which the laity must also be involved. Nor am I trying to suggest that churchmen should shortcut every patient attempt to negotiate and jump immediately into what are often morally ambiguous situations. But I am suggesting that it 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.

I am convinced that it is too late for "moderation," too late merely to appeal to "the white man's conscience," too late to hold everything for favorable legislation that may or may not come. The demonstrations we have seen this summer are the legitimate outworking of the Negro's frustrations in the face of such advice, and they have been mild indeed compared to what one might have expected after one hundred—let alone three hundred—years of broken promises. The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and it is no wonder the children's teeth are set on edge. We can no longer say "Wait!"—whether until the next generation or until the next election.  

For a bit longer, but not, I fear, for much longer, will we have the luxury of responding to the incredible patience that the Negro discipline of non-violence has exhibited. For the patience is justifiably wearing thin, and the picture of the Negro reaching out in love by non-violent means may soon be replaced by the picture of his reaching out in hate by violent means. 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. There is a haunting line in Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, which may well become the description—or the epitaph—of our generation. Msimangu, the black Anglican priest, says to a friend about the whites, "I have one great fear in my heart, that when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating."

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.

All that I have said has not been said as Protestant to Catholic, but as Christian to fellow Christian. For while we may disagree about the Petrine succession, we do not disagree about the ethic of love toward all men and particularly toward the dispossessed. While we may disagree about the dogma of the assumption, we do not disagree about the conviction that if any man says he loves God and hates his brother he is a liar. Here, surely, in our various communities ("at the grassroots," as Protestant denominational executives have a way of saying), we can and must find ways of demonstrating the solidarity we share in Christ, even when that solidarity is not yet unity. For on this particular issue, nothing divides us.

 

The above was written before the March on Washington, and to it I wish to add a few reflections arising from that memorable event. The very dignity and orderliness of the day served to emphasize the fact that time is running out; I find it inconceivable that a few years, or even a few months, hence, 200,000 people will act in such restrained and dignified fashion if their hopes are dashed again.  

Such are the pleasant vagaries of ecumenical and geographical existence that I, a Presbyterian from California, found myself going to Washington in a bus prominently labeled "Episcopalians of Pennsylvania." Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of the day was the busses, and the experience of riding down the unspeakably tawdry Route 40 and finding it almost sanctified by the hundreds of busses that were traversing it. At every junction more busses joined the caravan, all labeled to show the diverse people that were brought together in a common cause; shop workers, New York City employees, Lutherans, machinists, unemployed railway men, political precinct clubs...all sorts and conditions of men. I don't know what the mood was in the other busses, but in ours Route 40 was further transformed by the fact that as we traversed its length we said Morning Prayer together.

As "Episcopalians of Pennsylvania" were entering Washington, we passed a convent on the steps of which several nuns were waving the procession on. One of them, seeing our sign, nudged the other sisters and pointed to it, after which they all waved to us with special vigor—one of the nicest touches of the day. (Footnote to God: Please bless all nuns who identify themselves with civil rights demonstrations, whether with or without ecclesiastical approval.)  

Whether by fate, accident, or (as I would prefer) providential design, the buses entered Washington through what would be called "the Negro section." This was to me the most throat-catching part of the day. I won't say the streets were lined, but there were groups of Negroes in front of every home, waving to each bus as it went by, reminding one (the comparison occurred to my wife) of all those newsreels of armies of liberation being greeted toward the end of World War II. We weren't an army of liberation, of course, but we did symbolize a hope—more strongly, a promise—of a liberation that thus far is exactly one hundred years late.  

The most poignant ones among those waving were the Negro children. I remember walking in East Berlin shortly before the Wall went up, and being depressed by the sight of small children playing happily; depressed because they were so oblivious of the fact that all too soon their lives would be twisted by what the presence of those Communist police in East Berlin symbolized. The kids in Washington, by contrast, have reason to hope for the future even though the present is still partly shabby. Even more important, perhaps, than the children, was one very pregnant Negro woman who waved enthusiastically to us. Maybe her child was born before the day was over (August 28, the day of the March on Washington, would be a good birth date for an American Negro). She too, could have hope for her child, and if we have to wait for her child to grow up before freedom has come for him, it will be too late for us as well.  

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.

It was encouraging to see the number of white faces in the crowd (between fifteen and twenty percent, someone estimated) and to realize that white clergymen were present in considerable numbers, i wish there had been more, and that there could have been a meeting point for priests, pastors and rabbis, so that they could have marched solidly together, proclaiming that whatever their differences might be, at this point they were without division.

Not all of our ecclesiastics, unfortunately, have learned the sober lesson of the 1960 inaugural: public prayers should be brief. The benediction, for example was a thinly veiled speech purveying to the Almighty all sorts of information to which he might have been presumed to have access, particularly if He had been listening to the previous speeches. During the benediction, by my count, three airplanes droned in overhead to land at the Washington Airport just across the Potomac. And I hereby offer Brown's Rule for church dignitaries praying at public functions: no prayer should last longer than it takes one airplane to land.

After the benediction, as the crowd dispersed with incredible order, we walked up the side of the reflecting basin. It was reflecting not only the inverted image of Abraham Lincoln, but also the inverted images of 200,000 black and white Americans who share a common concern. And it was my privilege to sing with them, and to sing with utter confidence. "Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday." 

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