The Unfinished Work of the Civil Rights Movement

In the wake of the insanity and destruction at the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021, we must reflect and realize what the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was all about, what it achieved, and how far we still have to go.

Early in his public life, at just 27 years old, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, clearly articulated what the movement being born was all about: “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” 1

The Civil Rights movement was one of the most startling and transformative social revolutions in history. I was born in 1955, a few weeks before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. There’s no connection between the two events except in my own mind. But the point is that I was born into a United States where segregation was legal, lethal and largely unquestioned. And if you did question the status quo, racists could kill you. The Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama honors 38 martyrs who gave their lives for the cause.2

The peaceful, non-violent methods of the movement forced white Americans to realize their own morally objectionable beliefs, attitudes and discrimination. The dignity and courage of the non-violent protesters, many of them young adults of college age, called the white majority to conversion and recognition of the justice of the Black community’s call for equality.

The Civil Rights Act was signed in July 1964. I was eight years old. In less than a decade, the USA went from a segregated land to a community where we moved much closer to “liberty and justice for all.”

Prime beneficiaries of the movement were not just Black Americans. White opponents to the Civil Rights act added “sex” to Title VII of the Bill’s protections, thinking that would increase votes against it. Along with “race, color, religion and national origin,” discrimination on the basis of sex would now be illegal. The plan backfired, and the bill passed, changing the lives of all Americans for the better.

But the fight for equality is not over. Still, economic disparities between racial groups persist. As measured in 2019, the median family income in the US was $76,057 for white families, while Latinx family income was $56,113 and the median Black family’s just $45,438.3

Today, Black and Latinx people are dying from COVID at a much higher rate than white people. Saddest of all is the statistic that black women and their babies die at twice the rate of white women and their babies.4

The reality that the fight for civil rights is not over hasn’t been more viscerally evident to me than it was on January 6th. It seems that overt and ugly racism is having a renaissance in the USA these days. I hope those days are numbered. But the problem stems beyond overt racism to the covert forces at play, including liars who inspired hordes of dangerous people to storm the Capitol. Their lies and misinformation stoke the fire of hate.

I believe that true Americans, the majority of the 320 million citizens of the USA, celebrate racial and cultural diversity. Anyone who strives to know and serve the true and living God welcomes the progress this country has made and seeks to continue to advocate for a more fair and just world.

Black Jesuit George Murry, Bishop of Youngstown Ohio, described the world our loving God desires for all. It is a world where we not just get along, but form the beloved community envisioned by the Prophet from Atlanta.

Imagine pulling people in from every neighborhood, from every walk of life, compelling them to sit down and share a meal together. You would have black and white and brown all together, rich and poor, gay and straight, progressive and conservative. Everyone’s mind would be blown when a vegan found a way to share a meal with a carnivore rancher, when a Black Lives Matter activist chuckled at the joke told by a Confederate flag-wearing Harley rider, and when a Trump enthusiast asked an undocumented immigrant to pass the tortillas. Somewhere in all of the mixing and relating, the Holy Spirit moves! God’s blessed community looks like a smorgasbord of humanity, in heaven and on earth. That’s not to say that it is OK to hold onto our biases, even our moral failings, but we grow past them together.” 5

bishop george murry

Like the good bishop, Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address called us to be friends, and not allow our differences to devolve into enmity. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” 6

Let’s honor Rev. King who gave his life for justice and truth. Let’s follow the better angels of our nature and grow past our prejudices. Let’s reconcile, redeem one another, and bring into being the beloved community.

Peace,

Fr. Rick Malloy, S.J.


Endnotes:

1 City Year Values (https://www.cityyear.org/about-us/culture-values/founding-stories/beloved-community)

2 Civil Rights Memorial (https://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs)

3 Census Bureau. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2019. September 15, 2020 (https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2020/demo/p60-270.html and https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/09/poverty-rates-for-blacks-and-hispanics-reached-historic-lows-in-2019.html)

4 Linda Villarosa, “The Hidden Toll: Why are Black Mothers and Babies in the United States Dying…”  The New York Times Magazine. April 15, 2018. Pp.30-39. (Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis – The New York Times [nytimes.com])

5 University of Scranton Graduation. May 2018. (http://news.scranton.edu/articles/2018/05/news-grad_U2018_BishopMurry_Speech.shtml)

6 Abraham Lincoln (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/31631-we-are-not-enemies-but-friends-we-must-not-be)

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