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Matt Malone, S.J.June 24, 2014

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.

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Jacqueline MCGEE
9 years 9 months ago
Thank you for this honestly written article. I was 15 when Martin Luther King led the March on Washington in 1963. I was not raised to actively hate, but my Catholic Church, located in Georgia, in 1963 did not have black members. They all belonged to a different Church, which still exists to this day. Of course, no one today attempts to say that black Catholics should only go to that Church, but the fact is that Catholicism in this city is still largely segregated 50 years later, as are many other churches in the deep South. Racism is not dead, and the effects of Jim Crow are still very much visible, if you look.
Bill Mazzella
9 years 9 months ago
Catholics can always be proud of Ted Hesburgh (still alive in late nineties) who did more than anyone for civil rights. He tells the story of his chiding White Protestant ministers for not doing more for civil rights. They answered him: "Our people would kill us." Hesburgh is arguably the greatest Catholic in Ameican history. John Tracy Ellis said it is not even close.
JR Cosgrove
9 years 9 months ago
I met Fr. Hesburg once. One of the things he said was that he makes sure he says Mass every day. Because one day he said he is going to die and wants to have said Mass that day. I hope he fulfills his wish.
David Mooneyhan
9 years 9 months ago
I grew up Catholic in rural South Carolina, where Catholics were about 2% of the population, salvation was believed to be limited to Catholics, conversion to Catholicism was very, very rare, and racism was very, very prevalent. Guess how progressive priests were against racism! They were far more interested in trying to fit in with the majority culture (and most of the readers here have no idea what outsiders we were---priests even wore cassocks then, and Catholics refused to eat meat on Friday), in order to "save souls." My Confirmation, in Summerton, SC, in 1965---the first time some of my Protestant relatives were invited to a Catholic service (beyond my parents' marriage)---was the first time our tiny mission church was suddenly half-filled with African-Americans, who had NO idea what the Mass was, or even how to make the Sign of the Cross. The priest had persuaded, or paid, them to attend, because the Bishop would be there. Also, of course, there were both black (St Jude's[!]) and white (St Anne's) parishes in the closest somewhat larger city, Sumter, SC. My point is that the Church in the South was almost TOTALLY focused on the inward Catholicism of the time, and that winning converts by appealing to the majority ethos was deemed much more important than challenging it. Today, I'm reminded of the focus of the Church here on condemning another despised minority, LGBT people (in the name of "religious freedom"). It seems it's very easy for the Church to condemn minorities (think of Jews, in the past) that the majority refuses to understand. ...Or to fail to oppose wars in all ages that the the "patriotic" majority mindlessly supports.
David Mooneyhan
9 years 9 months ago
BTW, you would be a fool not to lock your car door if anyone approaches it, wouldn't you? Crack it, and see what's going on, then be charitable---or, spin out!
Julie McElmurry
9 years 9 months ago
We hate the things we don't know because we fear them. The way you stop hating a group of people is by actually getting to know "one of them". The way you stop not personally knowing even a single "one of them" is by grabbing a coffee, starting up a conversation, befriending her through a mutual friend on facebook, liking her youtube channel, smiling as she sits beside you on the A train, letting him cut in front of you in line at the movies or giving a pleasant nod and smile when you pass each other at the mall. These are some of the myriad ways to start a friendship. The way you stop fearing "them" is to volunteer with a Catholic Volunteer Network program, volunteer in an agency alongside "them", eating in "their" restaurants, shopping in "their" little grocery stores (start with rice and familiar vegetables on your first trip, then venture into fun cold drinks and strangely shaped fruit on a future trip), watch a movie in "their" language with subtitles in your own, get to know their kids, give a reassuring nod to the tired looking mom of "some of them" or, heck, spend a couple of minutes now and then asking God to, as St. Francis of Assisi said, "enlighten the darkness of your heart" so that you may be able to pinpoint these things/people you hate, don't know and fear and leave all of that behind as you move toward them with a spirit of trust and friendship.

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