A Fierce Urgency of Now: Remembering the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

If You See Something, Say Something. This message on billboards, in airport terminals and on buses appears to be as well-branded today as Smokey the Bear’s mantra, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” was in my youth. We all want to feel safe, but the “fear” of some persons is endangering the lives of others.

Consider the following headline, currently circulating in the Black Press:  Florida Jury Awards $4 to Black Family. In St. Lucie, Florida a jury deliberated the case of a county deputy who fatally shot a Black father of three while he was listening to music in his garage. The incident began with a noise complaint by a mother picking up her child from a school across the street from the home of Gregory Hill Jr. For killing Hill and tear gassing the community, the jury awarded $1 to Hill’s mother for funeral expenses and $1 to each of his children for “loss of parental companionship, instruction, and guidance and … mental pain and suffering.” The verdict later was reduced to $.04!

I am more than fed up with the killing of Black people on the streets, at traffic stops, on death row, in the womb or due to poverty. Yet, the distressed phone calls of “concerned citizens” reporting the presence of Black people in “white” spaces is, I believe, an old form of harassment. It is reminiscent of perceived threats and insults that have historically generated violent retaliation against the Black community – including riots and lynching. There seem to be no consequences for the caller and no repercussions for the killer.

martin-luther-king-682116-pixabayRev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put forward a “fierce urgency of now” more than 50 years ago. It resounds in the call for reparations today. Addressing reparations would interrupt the harassment trending in communities at this time. This is not an “eye for an eye” philosophy nor an equalizer for generational injustice. Petitioning for reparations has a scriptural and sacramental basis. Like the brief period of Reconstruction, there is a restorative value for the entire community.

Despite external differences, we are one human family. Right now, the spectacle on the border sense is a déjà vu experience for African Americans and American Indians whose children have historically been taken away to boarding schools or sold away. Even now, poor and vulnerable children miss out on “parental companionship, instruction . . . guidance” and protection. Until we make a serious effort to address injustices like this and make reparations to those who, throughout our history, have been denied dignity our human family will remain fractured.

Recently, I re-read Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963.  Generally, that iconic moment is viewed as a rallying cry for freedom, justice, and integration. However, did we forget the tangible, jobs component? Whereas the call for freedom and integration is subjective and aspirational, employment need not be elusive vapor.

Now is the time to suspend judgment about the unemployed and under-employed. Low employment for persons of color, individuals with disabilities, formerly incarcerated men and women, and poor whites is unacceptable in the United States. The income gap between average workers and the corporate elite and the wealth gap between racial groups is the rotten fruit of our present economic system. Prioritizing the Common Good would free up sufficient resources for all who need to earn a living. Many long for the dignity of work. People want jobs that pay a living wage and provide essential benefits so that they may care for their families. Countless individuals cobble together part-time jobs to afford basic needs and may still require further assistance.

As one human family, we must once again hear that urgent cry of Rev. King and work to address these societal injustices in our time. As we prepare to mark the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, here are 10 examples of innovative approaches to reparations to consider:

  1. Teach the history of all.
  2. Focus STEM initiatives on medical technology, infrastructure and ending hunger, rather than producing military systems.
  3. Establish community-based sites for learning about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
  4. Value work and workers, people over profits.
  5. Fairly compensate teachers, caretakers, people who clean the environment and beautify spaces where we live, work and play.
  6. Provide access to quality education and health care for all.
  7. End homelessness.
  8. Affirm that Black Lives indeed Matter.
  9. Honor the Sabbath.
  10. Strive to do better and be better. Don’t give up.

The message of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is relevant now more than ever. As we mark the anniversary of this historic call for justice and dignity for all our brothers and sisters, we are challenged to work for the transformation of systems and structures that prevent the flourishing of some members of our society.

Going Deeper:

Learn more about how we can work for justice in our communities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Racism page where you can find resources and tools to respond to the sin of racism.

Head Shot.Oct 2017

 

Donna Grimes is the Assistant Director of African American Affairs in the USCCB Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church.

 

Let the People Vote!

Donna GrimesThe 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is August 6, 2015.

My heart rejoices when I see images of the ink-stained fingers of new voters, particularly in countries where the right to vote has been suppressed or denied.  This symbolism has greater significance when, despite much apprehension, the process proceeds peacefully.  Thus, achieving the right to vote signifies more than full citizenship.  It affirms the human dignity of a people; recognizing that they, too are created in the image and likeness of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1700).  In reality, justice reaches beyond court decisions, legislation and policy changes.  Rather, habitually doing what is right and just yields a conversion of hearts . . . eventually.

This year, we celebrated the relative success of the March from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago, which resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  While not the first effort to protect voting rights of African Americans, the legislation is a significant milestone in the quest for human rights and full citizenship for many groups in this country.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 confirmed terms of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, which established that “the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”  Much progress has been made, but there is still far to go, as debate continues around voter ID laws, legislative redistricting, and other practices which many perceive as limiting the ability of minority populations to vote.   As the saying goes, we take one step forward and two steps backward.

There are also many signs of hope. In March of this year, prior to traveling to Montgomery, AL to participate in the Archdiocese of Mobile’s observance of the anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery, I witnessed the ordination of Most Rev. Fernand Cheri OFM, in New Orleans.  Bishop Cheri is the 25th African American bishop.  African American Catholics traveled near and far for the ordination and for evening vespers and a reception at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy Family.  This community, comprising mostly African American women religious, was founded in 1842 by Venerable Henriette Delille, whose struggle for religious freedom and human dignity in the United States still inspires us today.

When I arrived in Montgomery, AL, I noted the small crowd and minimal press coverage—in contrast to coverage for the Selma leg of the march earlier in the month, as President Obama, numerous dignitaries and busloads of ordinary citizens flocked to the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge to retrace the steps of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of civil rights foot soldiers.  Rev. Dr. Bernice King delivered her father’s speech from the steps of the State Capitol in her own similar oratorical style.  Barred from speaking at that location, her father spoke from the bed of a pick-up truck.  To the question, “How long?” both crowds responded, “Not long!”  Also noteworthy among the speakers in Montgomery 2015, was the daughter of former Alabama Governor, George Wallace.  She highlighted her father’s transformation after a failed assassination attempt landed him in a wheel chair for the remainder of his life.  Those present caught a glimpse of redemption.

Since I was an African American Catholic school girl during that era, my emotions and moral compass vacillated throughout the trip – propelled by memories, maturity, reflections on present day speeches and homilies; and the simmering reality of current news events reminiscent of the violence and struggles of the past.  The 50th Anniversary Mass at St. Jude Catholic parish also generated a plethora of emotions.  City of St. Jude was Campsite #4 in 1965, the final rest stop before ascending to the Capitol.  Today, we honor the victory of the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, cognizant that this 50th anniversary is our modern day Campsite #4, a rest stop on the road toward justice.

Donna Grimes is Assistant Director – African American Affairs in the USCCB Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church.