One day this past week, after morning Mass, a friend and fellow professor from Franciscan University of Steubenville casually remarked that this year (2012) marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II. I responded, “That’s horrible! Don’t tell me that!” He was a bit shocked until I told him it wasn’t Vatican II that was horrible, but the fact that I can remember it—first hand! I’ll turn 62 later this year. I didn’t want to be old enough to remember the 50th anniversary of anything!
I immediately had two other thoughts. First, in 2 more years we’ll be subjected worldwide to the 50th anniversary of Beatlemania. I still recall vividly my sister and me sitting excitedly before the black and white TV in early ’64 to see the Beatles in their first appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. But, more seriously, remembering today’s holiday, my second thought was that I actually remember Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama in December, 1955 and the year-long boycott that followed with all its tension and trouble. Not that I remember all that clearly—I was 5 years old—but I was there and I remember what it was like in those days. My dad was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama from 1954 to late 1961 (two tours of duty, one at the Squadron Officers School, the other at the Air War College).
As things unfolded in the late ‘50’s and early ’60’s in Montgomery, I remember some of the upsets, the bombings, the threats, the tension, the federal troops sent in 1961 after trouble in response to the Freedom Riders. It was quite a shock to look out the window of our school bus on the way into Our Lady of Loretto elementary school in downtown Montgomery and see army jeeps with fully decked out, gun-totting soldiers in them. Was there war?
Now Maxwell Air Force base was actually like a little island of the north set down in the middle of the deep south. Segregation was forbidden on the base, including in the transportation system. Our parents educated my sister and me against prejudice and discrimination. Historically, as I discovered later, Rosa Parks actually got some major help and inspiration, before the bus troubles, from a married couple at Maxwell for whom she worked as a maid.
But, outside the confines of the air base, it was truly the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, and that’s the atmosphere I experienced from age 5 to 11. At times I found it strange and irrational. For instance, I noticed that in the back of the Montgomery Ward store (incidentally, Rosa Parks also worked there for a time), there were separate elevators, escalators, bathrooms, water fountains, etc., all marked “Colored Only.” Even by age 10, I wondered why people would spend all that money to duplicate all those services! It just seemed to be a complete waste. Especially now, looking back on it, in a capitalist society dedicated to profit, it amazes me how much money was spent just to maintain a social prejudice.
Sometimes, however, it wasn’t just strange but frightening. I remember, probably at age 7 or 8, being thirsty and approaching a water fountain for a drink. I didn’t think a thing about it, even though I could read the sign above the fountain. But just before I got a drink, a complete stranger grabbed me by the back of the collar, ripped me away, and said angrily, “Can’t you read, boy!” He pointed to the sign that said, of course, “Colored Only.” I had never been accosted by a complete stranger before in all my (admittedly short) life and I found it somewhat traumatic. I was scared. What would’ve happened if I’d taken a drink? Would I have died? Caught the cooties? Been arrested? Why would some passing stranger grab me like that, when my parents had not been concerned? Why did he think he had the right, or the obligation, to do that?
But this was the world outside the airbase. At school, though Catholic, the surrounding culture entered in by osmosis. When we as school kids chanted
eeny meeny miny moe,
catch a tiger by the toe,
if he hollers let him go,
eeny meeny miny moe,
sometimes we would substitute the “N” word and not think too much about it. We didn’t explicitly intend to be mean or disrespectful, much less hateful, but it was just part of the atmosphere—though we knew better that to sing it that way if any of the nuns were around, so we knew it wasn’t right. Again—talk about cultural osmosis!—even in Catholic school, when I was a “patrol boy” to help the younger kids across the street, we had special uniforms we could wear to school when we were on duty and special flags to stop the cars. Our uniforms, officially approved, were confederate army replicas (I still have a picture) and our flags were of the confederate battle flag. At the time, these things didn’t carry all the negative connotations they do now.
Now, my question today is why should we remember all this? We honor, of course, a great, and peaceful, black minister who helped to put an end to it. But, after all the ugliness, the riots, the hatred that followed in the ‘60’s and beyond, isn’t all this just a negative now? When we honor Martin Luther King aren’t we just reopening old wounds, causing more division, inciting needless resentments, driving people further apart for no good reason by remembering the injustices of a half a century ago? In remembering old injustices, in stoking hatreds, aren’t we encouraging hatred and retaliation now? Aren’t we just encouraging negative forms of “black power” and “black pride” at the expense of unity?
All these are dangers, of course, especially if unleashed in the political arena (perhaps for manipulative purposes), but I think there are deeper positive reasons—not involving politics—to recall the injustices of the past and those who struggled to eradicate them. I’m reminded of a memorial I visited in Paris, back in the summer of 1970, when I hoofed around Europe using Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day (and you could actually it do in some areas). At the tip of an island in the Seine River is a memorial to the Jewish people persecuted by the Nazi’s. To enter, you walk down a long white marble staircase to an exhibit at the bottom—pictures, films, etc.—then you turn and have to climb up a corresponding long white staircase to get out. As you go up the white stairs with white walls and ceiling, you naturally look up to see how far away the exit is. And, in large black lettering above the exit are the simple words, “Pardonne, n’oublie pas.” That is, “Forgive, do not forget.” That’s the thought you can’t help but leave with after reviewing all the horrors.
And that is why we remember past injustices and those who heroically fought them. Not to inflame hatreds all over again, but to humbly and realistically acknowledge what we are capable of in how we treat other human beings and to remind ourselves of the need for forgiveness. We—any of us—are capable of great evils in dehumanizing other persons, or whole classes of persons. It has happened many times in the past and it can happen again. The treatments of blacks and Jews are most evident recent historical examples, but one could also speak of Stalin’s treatment of the kulaks, the treatment of the American Indians, of the Australian aborigines, of the handicapped, of women in history, of the unborn today. When a person is dehumanized, treated as a deficient human, as a non-human or sub-human, as vermin, as a parasite, as a disease, as a thing, as a non-person, as a waste-product, as an animal, etc., then we are all under assault in our most basic human dignity. (For a chilling study of such ways of speaking, see Dr. William Brennan’s Challenging the Language of the Culture of Death, at lifeissues.net. Also, the accompanying Table is especially illuminating, from his book Dehumanizing the Vulnerable, When Word Games Take Lives.)
Therefore, let us honor today a great civil rights leader of his time, and those associated with him, who helped reaffirm the dignity of each human being. We should not give in to prejudice and injustice just because it predominates in a culture. As Rosa Parks said, explaining her refusal to move to the back of the bus, “I was just tired of giving in.” She added, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night." This is how we have to be now about the denial of human rights to any class of people—including any ugliness lingering from the past prejudices, but especially I would submit, in our generation, concerning the war against the unborn.