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LETTERS TO A WHITE LIBERAL
These “Letters to a White Liberal” were written during the early summer of 1963 and revised in the fall of the same year. As they approach publication in book form, a few remarks are needed to situate them in the context in which they will quite probably be read.
The developments that have taken place during 1964 have, if anything, substantiated everything these “Letters” attempted to say.
The Civil Rights bill has been passed, after the longest debate in the history of Congress, after the longest filibuster, after the most sustained and energetic efforts to prevent its becoming law. The new legislation is, in the main, worthy of praise. But, as the “Letters” point out, it is one thing to have a law on the books and another to get the law enforced when in practice not only the citizenry and “Citizens’ Councils” but the police, the state governments and the courts themselves are often in league against the Federal government. To what extent the law will remain a dead letter in the South, to what extent it will simply aggravate pressures and animosities in the North, where such righs are still guaranteed in theory more than in practice, is not quite possible to predict.
One thing is certain: since this law will not be entirely enforced, and since, even if it were perfectly enforced it would still not be able to meet critical problems that are more strictly economic and sociological (jobs, housing, delinquency, irresponsible violence), we are forced to admit that the Civil Rights legislation is not the end of the battle but only the beginning of a new and more critical phase in the conflict.
How comforting, how utopian a thought, if we could only convince ourselves that this new law marks the final victory in a patient and courageous struggle of moderate leaders, dedicated to non-violence and to scrupulous respect for social order and ethical principles! It is true of course that Birmingham and the Washington March in 1963 were symbolic of a long non-violent fight for rights. They marked the final stages of the campaign that made the Civil Rights bill an urgent necessity.
At the same time the systematic lawlessness and violence with which the opponents of Civil Rights legislation have set their own “rights” above those guaranteed by the law, have effectively undermined the respect which the Negroes themselves may have had for the legal and administrative agencies that are supposed to keep order and protect rights. Thus the struggle for the bill has also demonstrated that, in order to exercise the rights which the law protects, the Negro (and anyone else whose rights are in fact denied) is going to have to obtain some form of power.
Of course the law specifically removes obstacles to the registration and voting of Negroes, reaffirming that they should have access to the democratic exercise of power by ballot. Obviously, however, it is going to be a long time before Negroes can make full use of this particular form of power. And the use of molotov cocktails and bullets against them when they attempt to vote, unfortunately encourages them to prefer bullets to ballots themselves.
So it happens that now, after the passage of the bill, a new, tougher Negro leadership promises to emerge, no longer moderate and non-violent, and much more disposed to make sinister and effective use of the threat of force implied by the great concentration of frustrated, angry and workless Negroes in the ghettoes of the North. We can now expect violent, though perhaps disorganized and sporadic, initiatives in force around the edges of the Negro slums. This is already a familiar experience in some cities where, however, the violence has usually been designated under the rubric of “deliquency” rather than that of “revolution.” But let us not forget that delinquency itself is simply a spontaneous form of non-political protest and revolt.
When the Civil Rights bill passed, a Southern Senator tragically declared that this would “only add to the hatred.” He was of course right in foreseeing that after the bill became law the danger of hatred and violence would be even greater than before. But he was not necessarily right in attributing this to the law as such. He simply knew that the law had not ended the struggle. He knew well enough that the law had left the white South more deeply and grimly entrenched in its refusals. That the Negro, North and South, was more determined to take matters into his own hands, since he was convinced that even the liberal white man was not prepared to give him anything beyond fair promises and a certain abstract good will.
No one can be blind to the possibilities of violence in this situation. Though it is quite true that the vast majority both of whites and Negroes want to solve this problem without force and bloodshed, their “wanting” and their good intentions are no longer enough. It is also obvious that the majority of Americans were shocked and appalled by the senseless murder of President Kennedy. The fact remains that no matter who may have been guilty of actually shooting the President the murder grew out of the soil of hatred and violence that then existed and still exists in the South. It has been said often enough, but not too often, that the President had already been killed a thousand times over by the thoughts and the words, spoken or printed, of the racists. His death was something that had been meditated, imagined, desired and “needed” in a profound and savage way that made it in some sense inevitable. This was something that John F. Kennedy himself evidently did not understand, or he would have gone into Dallas that day with less confidence and better protection. It is also something that the majority of Americans still do not quite manage to believe. But it must be affirmed: where minds are full of hatred and where imaginations dwell on cruelty, torment, punishment, revenge and death, then inevitably there will be violence and death.
Why, in this particular crisis (and this applies to international politics as well as to domestic or economic upheaval), is there so much hatred and so dreadful a need for explosive violence? Because of the impotency and the frustration of a society that sees itself involved in difficulties which, though this may not consciously be admitted, promise to be insuperable. Actually, there is no reason why they should be insuperable, but as long as white society persists in clinging to its present condition and to its own image of itself as the only acceptable reality, then the problem will remain without reasonable solution, and there will inevitably be violence.
The problem is this: if the Negro, as he actually is (not the “ideal” and theoretical Negro, or even the educated and cultured Negro of the small minority), enters wholly into white society, then that society is going to be radically changed. This of course is what the white South very well knows, and it is what the white Liberal has failed to understand. Not only will there be a radical change which, whatever form it may take, will amount to at least a peaceful revolution, but also there will be enormous difficulties and sacrifices demanded of everyone, especially the whites. Obviously property values will be affected. The tempo of life and its tone will be altered. The face of business and professional life may change. The approach to the coming crucial labor and economic problems will be even more anguished than we have feared. The psychological adjustment alone will be terribly demanding, perhaps even more for Negroes than for whites in many cases.
These are things which the South is able to see. But their reality does not justify the conservative conclusion which clings blindly to the present impossible state of things, and determines to preserve it at any cost, even that of a new civil war. We must dare to pay the dolorous price of change, to grow into a new society. Nothing else will suffice!
The only way out of this fantastic impasse is for everyone to face and accept the difficulties and sacrifices involved, in all their seriousness, in all their inexorable demands. This is what our society, based on a philosophy of every man for himself and on the rejection of altruism and sacrifice (except in their most schematic and imaginary forms) is not able to do. Yet it is something which it must learn to do. It cannot begin to learn unless it knows the need to learn. These “Letters” attempt to demonstrate the reality of that need and the urgency of the situation.
I. If I dare to imagine that these letters may have some significance for both of us, it is because I believe that Christianity is concerned with human crises, since Christians are called to manifest the mercy and truth of God in history.
Christianity is the victory of Christ in the world—that is to say, in history. It is the salvation of man in and through history, through temporal decisions made for love of Christ, the Redeemer and Lord of History. The mystery of Christ is at work in all human events, and our comprehension of secular events works itself out and expresses itself in that sacred history, the history of salvation, which the Holy Spirit teaches us to perceive in events that appear to be purely secular. We have to admit that this meaning is often provisional and sometimes beyond our grasp. Yet as Christians we are committed to an attempt to read an ultimate and transcendent meaning in temporal events that flow from human choices. To be specific, we are bound to search “history,” that is to say the intelligible actions of men, for some indications of their inner significance, and some relevance to our commitment as Christians.
“History” then is for us that complex of meanings which we read into the interplay of acts and decisions that make up our civilization. And we are also (this is more urgent still) at a turning point in the history of that European and American society which has been shaped and dominated by Christian concepts, even where it has at times been unfaithful to its basically Christian vocation. We live in a culture which seems to have reached the point of extreme hazard at which it may plunge to its own ruin, unless there is some renewal of life, some new direction, some providential reorganization of its forces for survival.
Pope Paul VI, in opening the second session of Vatican Council II, has clearly spelled out the obligation of the Church to take the lead in this renewal by becoming aware of her own true identity and her vocation in the world of today. He has said without any hesitation or ambiguity that the Church must recognize her duty to manifest Christ to the world, and must therefore strive as far as possible to resemble the hidden Lord of Ages so as to make Him visible in her charity, her love of truth and her love of man. To that end, the Church has the obligation to purify and renew her inner life, because it is “only after this work of internal sanctification has been accomplished that the Church will be able to show herself to the whole world and say: ‘Who sees me sees Christ.’ ”* In order to do this the Church herself must “look upon Christ to discern her true likeness.”
Now this call to a universal examination of conscience, not only on the part of Catholics but also implicitly of all Christians, came exactly two weeks after a bomb exploded in a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four Negro girls at Sunday School. On that same day, in the same city, an Eagle scout, of the white race who had been to Sunday School and to a racist rally, shot and killed a twelve year old Negro boy for no other reason than that he was a Negro.
These were not the actions of Catholics, but they took place in a region where many Catholics have explicitly and formally identified themselves with racial segregation and therefore with the denial of certain vital civil rights to Negroes. In Louisiana, not long before the Pope’s address, Catholics had set fire to a parochial school rather than allow it to be opened to Negro students along with white. In Louisiana also a Catholic priest who had white and Negro children receive their first communion at the same time, though at different ends of the altar rail, was beaten up by his parishioners for this affront to Southern dignity. (In most Catholic Churches of the South, Negro communicants may only approach the altar rail after all the whites have departed.) In the light of these events, the following words of Pope Paul have a special seriousness and urgency: “If (the Church) were to discover some shadow, some defect, some stain upon her wedding garment, what should be her instinctive, courageous reaction? There can be no doubt that her primary duty would be to reform, correct, and set herself aright in conformity with her divine Model.”