God Bless America!

A Freedom Rider bus is firebombed near Anniston, Ala., May 14, 1961 (AP Photo).

From the archives (June 17, 1961)

From the Eternal City, where he is engaged in historical research, Fr. Dunne, S.J., tells how it feels to read the news from back home the morning after a race riot in Alabama.

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In seven consecutive issues in June and July, 1949, America published what was later to become Fr. Dunne's widely acclaimed pamphlet, Religion and American Democracy: A Reply to Paul Blanshard's "American Freedom and Catholic Power."

ROME, MAY 23—This is one of those days which make one proud to be an American. "The Stars and Stripes Forever...DA DA-DA-DA DA-DA-DA." "God bless America, land that I love." "Columbia, the gem of the ocean." Land of the free and home of the brave! You can see the Statue of Liberty standing there welcoming to her shore—urging them to come—the poor, the outcast, of every color, land and creed. The melting pot of the world! Irish and English, French and Germans, Dutch and Indonesians, Algerians, Liberians, Laotians, Cambodians, Burmese and Vietnamese. "Send me your poor from every land!” What a proud boast. You can hear the bands playing, the crowds cheering; see the flags flying, the orators orating. "God bless America, my home sweet home!" This is a day to make an American hold his head high and step out lively, conscious of the eyes of the world upon him.

The eyes of the world are upon him. You know it from the moment you step out the front door here in Rome. There is the story in every paper; the great black headlines screaming from every chiosco; the photographs on every front page, arresting the eye, making the heart beat faster, thrusting the proud American chin up higher. Oh, it’s a great day to be an American! Not just in L'Unità, the Communist paper; but in II Messaggero, the middle-of-the-road paper, and in Tempo, the right-of-center paper, and in II Popólo, the Christian Democratic paper, and in II Cuotidiano, the Catholic Action paper, and in Osservatore Romano, the Vatican City paper. Not just in the papers in Rome and in Italy, but in the papers in France and in Germany and in Spain and in Portugal, the papers all over Europe, the papers all over the world—rejoicing our enemies, dismaying our friends, alienating the undecided.

Let the Russians boast of their sputniks and their shots around the moon and their astronauts circling the globe. Cheap publicity stunts! Propaganda flares! When it comes to capturing headlines, Americans can give them hearts and spades and beat them every time. Look at those headlines: RACE RIOTS IN ALABAMA!... WHITE MOB ASSAULTS BUSLOAD OF NEGRO AND WHITE YOUTHS... TWO GIRLS AMONG INJURED TAKEN TO HOSPITAL. Thank God, that vaunted Southern chivalry lives on, come hell, high water or the day of doom!

Look at those great photographs! A young white man, blood streaming down his face, dyeing his white shirt red. Red, white and blue! Oh, it’s a grand thing to be an American!

Look at those great photographs! A young white man, blood streaming down his face, dyeing his white shirt red. Red, white and blue! Oh, it’s a grand thing to be an American! He’d been riding around the country in the Freedom Bus with this crowd of young colored people, being a friend. Well, that’ll show him. That’ll show the world how red-, white- and blue-blooded Americans handle that kind of thing. Look at this other picture! A young Negro man knocked to the sidewalk and three big, tough Alabama cops closing in to grab him and give him the works. That should teach those Baluba tribesmen down in the Congo a thing or two. They think they’re primitives. It’ll take them a few hundred years to catch up with us. They don’t even know what being primitive means. Look at this picture here. Brave, frightened Negroes watching the long wakeful night hours through, besieged in a church by a howling mob of whites outside. A young woman, face contorted by sobs, broken up, broken to pieces by the pounding waves of hatred beating in through the windows, through the doors, through the walls.

I know what she feels, the tearing sickness of feeling yourself hated for nothing that you have done or could undo, but only for what you are. I stood on a debating platform once in Boston and felt waves of hatred coming up at me out of the audience. They came from only part of the audience, a small part, from two or three hundred people who hated me because of what I was—a Catholic and a priest defending the Catholicism they hated. Nothing I could say or do could reach them or touch their hearts or stop those waves of hatred which were tangible, which I could feel and almost taste. When it was over, I went back to New York and into a hotel and was sick. I was sick for three days. So I know what makes this girl sob her heart out. Mine, however, was an isolated, single experience. She has had to live with hatred all her life, surrounded by it, engulfed by it, and tonight it howls about this church where she is at bay.

Yes, sir, those Communists think they are real good haters. “Imperialists,” they call us. “Capitalists.” Sticks and stones. We can give anybody lessons in hate. Remember those magnificent pictures a few months back that made the newspapers all over the world? Those New Orleans housewives, good solid American housewives, their faces grotesquely contorted with hate, screaming epithets at a bewildered little Negro child and her quietly courageous father? There was an orgasm of hate that even Hitler might have envied.

We have erected and maintained for a hundred years a segregated social system based upon hatred; hatred and pride, a (literally) God-damned pride in the whiteness of our own skin. A kind of skinolatry. That’s what it means to be an American. Always out there in front. Firstest with the bestest. Maybe not in sputniks, shots to the moons, men in orbit, but first in the things that count, the things that really make the world sit up and take notice.

“There’s a great day a-comin’.” Yes sir, today is one of those great days, a come-and-get-it day. A day when it feels great to be an American.

Feels great to be a Catholic, too. Associated with those Catholic racists in New Orleans—frequenters of the sacraments, the papers said—who keep the fires of hatred burning bright. “Keep the home fires burning.” Great to be a priest, along with those priests who encouraged their racist friends to defy their Archbishop and who quietly sabotaged his efforts to destroy the white-skinned calf in his own diocese.

A day indeed for a Catholic to be proud. A day for all Christians to be proud. For Alabama, like Mississippi, like Georgia, like all of the Deep South, is God-fearing, go-to-meeting country. You may be sure most of that howling mob besieging the church and trying to set it on fire to make a holocaust to the Lord of those who huddled within will be in their own Baptist and Methodist and Evangelical churches next Sunday, piously and proudly shouting their Christian hymns.

You may be sure most of that howling mob besieging the church and trying to set it on fire will be in their own  churches next Sunday, piously and proudly shouting their Christian hymns.

Some years ago a Jesuit missionary, after twenty-five years in India, said to me: “Stay in America and fight racial segregation. You can do more for the missions and for the cause of freedom that way than by returning to China, because the example of racial segregation in America is the biggest obstacle we have to overcome in trying to sell people on the merits of both Christianity and democracy.”

We were looking out the window upon a Marian procession of young college men and women, of surpliced priests, and a resplendently robed bishop. “As long as they can gather a few hundred well-scrubbed boys and pretty girls to walk in a procession carrying banners on a sunny day, they think God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world,” he said. “And all the time the earth is crumbling beneath their feet.”

Since that day China has gone. Eastern Europe has gone. Southeast Asia is tottering, Africa is threatening, Latin America is in doubt. And we still talk about “prudence” and “gradualism” and reduce to silence the voice that is raised in warning or in protest and say we must tread quietly here and walk softly there.

But this is such a complicated question! As complicated as charity. No doubt Christianity has become quite complicated. But the essence of the Christian way of life remains as simple as Christ said it was: love of God and love of neighbor, summing up all of the law and all of the prophets. And unless we have this, we do nothing more than tinkle the brass and sound the cymbals. Love is a hard saying and, because in two thousand years we have not learned to practice it, the thunder gathers on the left while we sing our pious hymns and walk in pleasant processions.

But enough of these melancholy thoughts. This is a day to exult in. Unfurl the flags! Strike up the bands! Thrust out your chests! Lift up your chins! “I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with (come on now, shout it out) liberty and justice FOR ALL!” That’s it! Now all together: “God bless America, land that I love… From the mountains, to the ocean…” Hold it! Hold it! Wait a minute! How did that n**** back there get in? Ushers! Grab [him] and throw him out on his ear... That’s the way to do it. Wait’ll those pictures hit the papers. That’ll make them sit up and take notice. Now—let’s hear EVERYBODY join in. “Onward, Christian soldiers, DA, DA, DA, DA, DA…”

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