Last week, while attending the Catholic Media Convention in Charlotte, N.C., I was lucky enough to catch “Freedom Riders” on my hotel room television set. This PBS documentary from 2012 tells the story of the brave Americans who in 1961 risked their lives just to travel together on buses and trains through the segregated Deep South.
I tuned in just in time to watch the interview with Jim Zwerg, one of a handful of white Christians who joined the nonviolent movement. At the bus terminal in Montgomery, Ala., he recalled, a racist mob knocked his teeth out and were about to kill him when a black man stepped in and ultimately saved his life.
In an interview in USA Today last year, Mr. Zwerg described what went through his head and heart as he was being beaten unconscious: “In that instant, I had the most incredible religious experience of my life. I felt a presence with me. A peace. Calmness. It was just like I was surrounded by kindness, love. I knew in that instance that whether I lived or died, I would be O.K.”
What a testament to the power of Christian faith, to the power of Christian witness! Like Jim Zwerg, many white Christians, including many white Catholics, joined the civil rights movement, speaking up on behalf of their black brothers and sisters. But not enough did.
Similarly, many Jesuits, including one of my predecessors as editor in chief, as well as many of the men who served on the editorial board of this review, also supported the civil rights movement, as you will see in these pages. But not enough did.
As M. Shawn Copeland writes in this issue, “Too often, Christians not only failed to defy slavery and condemn tolerance of racism; they supported it and benefitted from these evils and ignored the very Gospel they had pledged to preach.”
True, Christian faith is no guarantee of personal perfection, and thank God that the hypocrisy of the messenger does not make the message false. Still, Christians have much to account for. I know I do.
I was born 11 years after the Freedom Riders, but I am also a product of a time and culture that was and remains anything but post-racial. And while I still have a lot to learn, I do know this: the notion that whites—even the most enlightened among us—“don’t see race” is ridiculous. It’s quite obviously the first thing that we see. I don’t forget that someone is black, any more than he or she forgets that I am white. That’s just something white people tell themselves in order to feel a little less complicit in the whole ghastly history of racial prejudice.
Like it or not, whites, like all of us of every race, are heirs to that history. I know I am: I recall as a young man being surprised and feeling ashamed when I impulsively and without thinking locked my car door as a black man approached. Where did that come from? It didn’t come from nowhere.
We all see race. The question is, What do we do when we see it? Do we openly acknowledge our history, our complicity, our shame, while not forgetting our triumphs and joys and especially our hopes for healing? Or do we just pretend that everything has changed, when in reality some important things have changed and some important things have not?
What we need is plenty of honest conversation, painful conversation about what we have done and what we have failed to do—not just between blacks and whites, or whites and Latinos, as important as these are, but also between whites and whites. It is our modest hope that this issue of America will contribute to such conversations.