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I still remember the day I got my first Bible. One night, my mother, a Black Puerto Rican woman, gathered me and my older brother in one of the bedrooms of our home in Cañaboncito. “I have something to show you,” she said, with a serious and gentle tone in her voice. Having our attention, she continued, “This is the most important book in life,” and she handed to each one of us a volume of the “Latinoamericana” Bible. As she flipped through the pages with us, she paused briefly in order to explain one of the photos that this Catholic Bible had. The picture illustrated a Black man in a suit that had a hopeful and deep gaze. “That’s Martin Luther King,” she said. “Although he was a Baptist, what he did was so important that his photo is in a Catholic Bible, as an example of what we Christians must do.” She explained to us what he achieved in the Montgomery bus boycott alongside his community, and exhorted my brother and me to always respect the Word of God. I think I was seven years old.
Some time later, I watched a documentary with my fair-skinned father about the struggles and achievements of the American Black Civil Rights Movement. I saw how bus segregation was defeated through social activism in Montgomery. Not just through words. How liberation was the triumph of an oppressed and organized community that fought for their rights. Not a charitable action by selfish oppressors. All this made an impression on me. A decade later, as I was discerning my vocation while studying in the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras in 2008, it was King’s words in his last speech the night before he was killed, that gave me peace when I believed God was calling me to be a priest:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now…Like anybody I would like to live a long life…But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I have looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I am not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.1
I would have never thought 12 years ago, as I took those first steps of my vocational discernment, that I would ever have the opportunity to participate in a “Civil Rights Pilgrimage.” But from January first to the seventh of this year, that’s just what I did. It gave me the chance to follow closely the steps of this man, whose example has been so important to my following of Jesus. Along with my brothers of the Jesuit Antiracism Sodality (JARS), we prayed our way through important historic sites in New Orleans, Mobile, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Atlanta, where King and many other civil rights martyrs gave their blood for the on-going cause of racial justice. Walking the streets of Selma and Montgomery, as King and many other martyrs had done, has been one of the most mystical experiences I have had.
As we crossed the historic Edmund Pettus bridge, stepped on its sidewalk, felt its solid structure, and heard the river below, I thought in silence “They were here!” I could almost hear the distant sound of hundreds of nonviolent resisters who joined the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery to ensure the voting rights of African Americans. “They saw this street, they touched this metal, they smelled this air.” I could feel their energy, their faith, their anxiety as they saw (and were harassed by) the police. At Selma, I learned three lessons from the witness of the Civil Rights martyrs.
The first lesson I learned was from Jimmie Lee Jackson, a veteran and a Baptist deacon. He was shot in February 1965 by an Alabama state trooper. His death served as an inspiration for the marches. From him I learned that no sacrifice for justice goes unrewarded, and that the work to build the Kingdom that God calls us to make on earth can only be made with the collaboration of all Christians. We, Catholics, hold no monopoly on truth and righteousness. The faithful testimony of so many Evangelical ministers during the civil rights struggle testify to that.
Viola Liuzzo taught me a second lesson. Viola was a White woman and a mother of five children. She was killed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan for collaborating in the marches’ coordination and for driving protesters back to Selma once the demonstrations were over. She taught me that I do not have to belong to an oppressed group in order to exercise solidarity with them. Love is measured more in deeds than words. Her witness of love showed me that any claim that the White racists of this era were simply “children of their time” is an excuse to avoid responsibility.
Viola chose not to be complacent with the prejudices and racist practices of her White community. She listened to the dissident voices of her era and did not conform to what feminist Mary Hawkesworth calls “evidence blindness:” a refusal to inquire and know about what is true but inconvenient, what makes us feel morally inadequate, because it reveals that we might belong to a social group that benefits from the exploitation of another.2 We can do the same thing she did right now. We can choose not to live at peace with the privileges that race, gender, or sexual orientation give to some of us and oppress so many.
A third lesson came from Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopalian seminarian. He was killed with a shotgun by a special county deputy while shielding Ruby Shields, an African-American activist. He taught me that I can’t wait until I become a priest to do what is right. Nothing assures me that I have more than “today” to imitate Christ. Therefore, I must fight for justice like I have no tomorrow.
After our time in Selma, we moved toward Montgomery where we visited the National Memorial for Peace & Justice of the Equal Justice Initiative. The phrase “We remember” is stamped into the walls of this memorial in honor of the Black men and women who were lynched. As a student of history, I heard the voice of God himself calling me to remind the world of the history that today makes us both who we are and how we are. The victims of the “demon” of lynching taught me that the racial inequalities that divide us today economically in housing, health care, education, and opportunity were not made by God. They are not natural. They are, like any idol, “the work of our hands” (Isaiah 2:8), just like the anti-Black racism that assassinated the lynched.
Letting these injustices continue is to commit idolatry, to choose “our way” instead of God’s way: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” (Acts 2:44-45). The hundreds of coffins in this memorial raise their voice to heaven as a cry against the sin of anti-Black racism, in which some of us continue to fall so often by idolizing the status quo.
Our pilgrimage ended in Atlanta, King’s hometown. As we toured the house of his infancy, I contemplated how he lived in conditions that were relatively better than the average African American in Atlanta during the 1930s. His house was big, it had high quality furniture, and the neighborhood was a stable one. But he did not settle. Martin and his wife, Coretta Scott King, could have had a more tranquil, middle-class life if they wanted to. But they didn’t. They took to heart those words of Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” From them, I learned to be faithful to the Cross and not to choose what is easy, but what is right.
We know that racism against Black people is not only still pervasive today but becoming worse. The Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) reports that in states like Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, the percentage of Black students attending “intensely segregated schools” (schools in which 90 to 100 percent of the population is non-White) has gone from 32.1% in 1988 to over 40% in 2016.3 Black men make 22.0% less in earnings relative to “the average hourly wages of White men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region or residence.”
The disparity between White and Black women is even more stark with Black women making 34.2% less than their White peers with comparable backgrounds.4 Astonishingly, some studies even indicate that “a White man with a criminal conviction has greater success finding a job than a Black man with no criminal record, with other important variables like education and experience being equal.”5
Among the proposed solutions are the implementation of policies that make the intentional integration of schools a priority, enforcement of existing labor discrimination laws, investigations by state and media to denounce wage and hour violations, and creating equal access to quality public education for children of minority groups. But none of these will magically appear. These and all other solutions will come only if we make them happen. From the martyrs I learned that God has chosen to act through us in this world. Therefore, without our diligent cooperation with God’s grace, society will not improve.
Even as the coronavirus spreads through the U.S., studies are already showing that African Americans are among the worst hit by the disease. This can’t be separated from the centuries-long exclusion from quality health services that African Americans have been subjected to, not just in the South, but all around the country. In the city of Milwaukee, where only 39% of the population is Black but about half of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 were among Blacks as of April 3rd: “We declared racism as a public health issue…”
We have to take the lessons from the martyrs seriously. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to grant us the same moral urgency that they received. We especially have to take the words from the Teacher to heart: “I thirst” (John 19:28). Through whom today is he screaming these words to us? Let us not waste this quarantine. Let us love to the end and not be afraid (John 13:1). Let us row deep into prayer, study, and action.
By the grace of God, like King and the other Martyrs, may we see “the glory of the coming of the Lord” and never turn back. Like that old song says, “We shall overcome.”
- “I See the Promised Land,” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by James M. Washington, (New York: Harper One, 1991), 286. ↩
- Mary Hawkesworth, Feminist Inquiry: From Political Conviction to Methodological Innovation, (New Brunswick: Rogers University Press, 2006), 118. ↩
- “JustSouth Index 2018.” Jesuit Social Research Institute. Loyola University, New Orleans. September 2019. p. 23. ↩
- Ibid., p. 24. ↩
- Ibid., p. 27. ↩