Straddling History and Hope in Selma

Ralph McCloud on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.

Ralph McCloud on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.

Like tens of thousands of others, I went to Selma to recall a historic struggle. A struggle that continues today for those who refuse to bow down to bigotry and hatred.

Thousands came to re-enact an act of public defiance to laws and impediments that denied them full citizenship.

I went at the invitation of colleagues and friends, but I must admit I felt a profound curiosity. I had learned about the civil rights struggle; I had seen the movies, heard the songs. But I felt called to go, for two reasons. First, I wanted to honor the historic value of the Selma March; what it has meant over the last 50 years. Second, and most importantly, I went because of what it can mean for our future.

Ambling across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, I played a mental game of “Ping-Pong”. “Pinging,” my thoughts honored with gratitude the six hundred brave souls who courageously walked the same journey 50 years prior. They had no way of knowing what awaited them some 54 miles and 50 years later. I sensed a growing appreciation for that time in our history when a door was opened to change, not just in the United States but worldwide. Then my mind “ponged” back to the present, to the recent Department of Justice report on police misconduct in Ferguson, MO. I remembered the high rate of child poverty in our country—1 in 3 children live in poverty—and even worse for communities of color. I recalled the lingering abject poverty I had just seen that very morning during a tour of modern day Selma. 40% of Selma residents live in poverty. I thought of the high incarceration rate of black and brown people, subjected to unjust sentencing guidelines, living without hope. Then I “pinged” again as I recalled “Neek,” a man I met who had journeyed on the Selma March 50 years ago when he was just 13. He and his best friend were given permission by their parents to march in a demonstration that was both unsafe and uncertain. Their parents wanted to go, but feared losing their jobs if they were identified as being part of the “movement”. I “ponged” again, amazed that those parents still organized, planned and sacrificed, knowing they could be fired anyway if it was discovered that their children had participated.

Bloody SundayI was inspired as I heard Thomas Rodi, Archbishop of Mobile, preach at a Mass concelebrated by three African American bishops; Bishop John Ricard SSJ, Bishop Sheldon Fabre and Bishop Martin Holly. Archbishop Rodi spoke of the Catholic Church’s outsized historic role in the Civil Rights Movement. He spoke of Catholics participating in the Selma to Montgomery March, not just as walkers, but in healing and housing.

Catholics healed the beaten, bitten and bruised at Good Samaritan Hospital (appropriately named), the only hospital that would see African American patients. Catholics housed, giving folk respite and lodging at the City of St. Jude organization (also appropriately named), which welcomed sojourners arriving in Montgomery.

I looked around at the enormous crowd, young and beautifully diverse. We would take a few steps and stop, a few more steps and stop. I thought of what it must have been like… to be battered by clubs, bitten by dogs, disrespected by police officers and onlookers. I could not help but wonder if I would have had the mettle and courage to do this 50 years ago. I came to no conclusions, but I was convinced that my parents and ancestors would have definitely walked, despite the danger, fear and uncertainty. Then the march stopped suddenly; the end of the bridge was still a long ways off. We all began to wonder what was going on. The folk at the head of the march realized that it would be impossible to continue because of the huge number of people gathered. They passed word back, which spread quickly among us along with no small disappointment. But there was a symbolism to it… the march is not yet finished. The march toward justice continues.

We who seek justice must not be content with merely making it to the other side of the bridge, or even getting all the way to Montgomery. We must not stop our stride toward freedom until justice surges like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream.

McCloud headshotRalph McCloud is director of the USCCB Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Bishop Jaime Soto on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development

The USCCB collection to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development will be taken up in parishes nationwide on the weekend of November 22-23. Please give generously.

Bishop Jaime Soto, Chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on CCHD

Bishop Jaime Soto, Chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on CCHD

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is the anti-poverty program of the Catholic bishops of the United States. Thinking about CCHD, my thoughts turn to the latest flashpoint of anger and civil unrest in our country—Ferguson, Missouri.

When the bishops created CCHD forty years ago, core to its mission was overcoming poverty by bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and different income brackets to identify solutions to poverty. Forty years later, the turmoil of Ferguson seems to pose a unique threat to our country. Yet there are eerie echoes of the past.

Just after the police shooting of the young black man, Michael Brown, there was much speculation and punditry about the reasons for the explosion of outrage. It’s right to ask whether adequate resources are available to stem a rising tide of frustration in our communities. And there are real concerns about racism, profiling and the militarization of local police enforcement. But I want to draw attention to one aspect that caught my attention in a radio report I heard in those initial days.

An African-American woman, active in the community of Ferguson, spoke about low voter turnout in the area. This may be just one underlying factor among many, but not an insignificant one.

Low voter participation means that structures intended to promote the common good may be far from representative. Confidence in decisions made and trust in those who make them become fragile. In Ferguson, authority was disconnected from accountability, fomenting a volatile social imbalance that only needed a spark. What little social fabric existed quickly unraveled.

As a bishop, I’m troubled to see violence erode a community. I’m also concerned about the underlying problems of diminishing public participation and representation. In my home state of California during the recent elections, a comparatively small percentage of citizens turned out to vote. We need to be sober about the problems of stale voter turnout.

Even a nation of laws cannot survive without the participation of ordinary people. Liberty loses its meaning without a common purpose fashioned from the crucible of thoughtful, respectful social dialogue. Groups supported by CCHD are working to reverse the process of community implosion by engaging citizens in critical conversations and activating the community’s native talent, resources and creativity. CCHD groups are reinforcing and creating social bonds based on faith, sharing and solidarity. In Ferguson, they are addressing racism and lack of opportunity for so many young people who feel excluded. Groups like Sacramento Area Congregations Together, in my diocese, are organizing parishes to reintegrate ex-offenders into the community in safe, productive and meaningful ways. Efforts like these help keep people from returning to prison and a life of crime.

Growing political polarity and economic disparity, as well as dwindling social civility seem to be pushing more people to the margins, either by coercion or self-exclusion. The relation between this growing exclusion and questions of democratic participation is not casual.

Pope Benedict XVI gave these questions, and the challenges they pose for Christians, much thought in his encyclical on charity, Deus Caritas Est. He proposed that even if a society could perfectly administer justice, Christians would still have the duty of charity. Charity is no substitute for justice. Charity implies justice. It enables a free society to build social bonds that justice alone cannot forge. We should listen carefully to the wise instruction of the Book of Proverbs: “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will himself also call and not be heard.”

Through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the bishops of the United States offer a unique contribution towards overcoming the hostility and indifference plaguing our country. The empowerment of local groups committed to breaking down the walls of race and income inequality, in the name of a greater solidarity, reverses the trend of disintegration that we’re witnessing in places like Ferguson. The credibility that CCHD supported groups bring to the table of democracy is a love for neighbor that satisfies the demands of justice and exceeds them.

Jaime Soto is the bishop of Sacramento and the chairman of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.