I can’t say exactly how old was my boy, but it surprised me that he had not heard of Dr. King, whose heroism I recall trying to articulate through choked-back tears.
Some years later, I explained his heroism as “refusal to disengage from the conversation of justice that constitutes us a people, even and especially in the face of hateful attempts to exclude him from it.”
I’ve never essayed to establish why my son’s question, or my attempt to answer it, affected me so, but — I wonder now — whether it wasn’t a sense of urgency lost, or misplaced.
Dr. King was no stranger to violence, and knew that time was short: “We have also come to this hallowed spot,” said Dr. King to the great crowd gathered on the national mall in August of 1963 to demand the immediate, full and effective recognition of citizenship rights to all Americans, especially Black Americans, “to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.”
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” Dr. King went on to say. “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
He was sensible of the danger America would face, should the American people choose not to face unflinchingly the wrongs and injustice daily visited on Black citizens:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Years later – after the passage of reforms that any candid observer must confess effected significant repair to the national fabric – Dr. King was still sounding the refrain: “Tomorrow,” he said at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, “is today.”
“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of Now,” Dr. King said again, exactly one year to the day before James Earl Ray murdered him in Memphis:
In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.”
Dr. King went on in that Riverside speech to note the “invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.” Then, he said: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on,” an unmistakable allusion to the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast. “We still have a choice today,” said Dr. King in 1967, “nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
Measured against 1963, the progress of our people toward racial harmony is undeniably significant: America is a very different and a better nation today. Nevertheless, our nation’s present-day convulsions are owing in no small part to our insistence on returning to business as usual.
“It’s hard for me to understand why we would doubt that there would be systemic racism,” Faith Glavey Pawl said to me during a conversation last summer on Catholic Herald: Behind the Headlines, “when we have the legacy of slavery in the United States.”
Last week in these pages, Leticia Ochoa Adams argued – in a piece titled “Whiteness at Work” – that it is not despite our legacy, but because of it, that we will not see what reckoning there is to make.
If one were to judge solely by the response of unabashedly racist readers, she must have hit pretty close to the mark.
Several correspondents — many of them thoughtful, courteous, and otherwise encouraging — have recently criticized what they have taken to be a late adventurous foray into US politics, and urged me to return the Herald to reportage, analysis, and commentary on “Catholic” matters.
The presuppositions on which that criticism must be based are that the common good is not a matter of concern to Catholics and that racism is not a matter directly concerning our common baptismal faith.
The US bishops take a different view.
“Racism has rightly been called America’s original sin,” they wrote not long ago. “[Racism] remains a blot on our national life and continues to cause acts and attitudes of hatred.”
“The need to condemn, and combat, the demonic ideologies of white supremacy, neo-Nazism and racism has become especially urgent at this time,” the bishops opined.
No one will easily accuse me of being a cheerleader for the US bishops, but they are not wrong on this point. Racism is indeed the Original Sin of American nationhood – the wound of which we carry with us – the effects of which we experience often unfeeling them.
“Sin,” wrote Dr. King (quoting Paul Tillich) in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “is separation.” The persistent effects of our poisonous legacy are dividing us in the present, separating us from each other and from ourselves. We have domesticated our alienation, and become too cozy with our “awful estrangement,” our “terrible sinfulness.”
We do not lack the wherewithal to renew our commitment to the vision of America that Dr. King so admirably articulated and nobly advanced, but the time for a national conversation – in which the chief part of the erstwhile White majority must be listening to fellows in citizenship with a view to action – is long since grown dangerously short.
Let us hear his warning, before it is too late.
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