I grew up in the Deep South at a time of even deeper segregation — a convenient term used to describe the complete separation of the races. It defined every aspect of our lives, where we lived, worked or went to school, and, especially, where we worshiped. (Martin Luther King once quipped that Sunday morning church services were the most segregated hours.)
For black families venturing out for entertainment or recreation it meant figuring out what was opened to us, and staying away from those that were restricted. We were cautioned at an early age to not cross those boundaries. In retrospect, it became clear that our parents tried their level best to protect us from the harsh realities of this situation. I can remember in particular that we were taught to say “yes, sir” or “no, sir,” in public when addressing white adults, to assure that the proper deference was shown.
The Ever Elusive Better Life
A ritual that most families faced was to experience their young picking up roots and leaving the area for faraway places like New York and other cities on the East Coast or California to look for work and a better life, which was to remain ever elusive for blacks living in the South.
More serious was living with the apprehension and fear of an ever-present police force that was ready and all too willing to enforce the rules by any means at their disposal, even if it meant the use of violence. There was an implicit understanding that they were permitted to do anything they wanted as long as the status quo was maintained. At the beginning of the civil rights era, when that system was being seriously challenged for the first time, violence increased, with lynchings, cross burnings, raids on homes and even the murder of individuals who had crossed the line and dared to challenge the system.
With a biased judicial system firmly on the side of the police and supportive of their actions, which was, in fact, one of the principal reasons for their existence, the violence continued. Whenever most blacks who lived through that time hear of the terrorist acts taking place in various parts of the world today, that terrorism resonates strongly. As victims of those police actions, they know all too well what it is like to live in an oppressive system.
Much Has Changed for the Better, but...
Although much has changed for the better in most of the Deep South, and in the country as a whole, and there remain few signs of overt discrimination, much also remains the same. To a large degree, the litany of discrepancies between blacks and the rest of society remains very much the same for most black people.
Selective enactment and enforcement of laws result in more arrests and imprisonment of blacks and a broadly disproportionate use of capital punishment for blacks convicted of serious crimes. Although they account for less than 12 percent of the population, blacks make up 70 percent of those in prison and on death row. Increasingly, blacks have a far higher level of unemployment, are more uninsured, get sick more often and stay sick longer than the rest of the population. In most large cities, failing schools, lack of opportunity and violent crime remain an ever-present reality. It is within this context that you would hear it said that blacks see racism everywhere, while whites, by and large, deny that it exists.
Faced with these facts, most white people would respond that much of this is a result of what black people have brought on themselves. They point to examples of the failure of black leadership and a too-quick tendency of blacks to blame the system or play the race card. While there may be some truth in this, the fact remains that a solution to these problems remains beyond the scope of a single group’s ability to address them. With global systems in place and the rapid advance in communication and technology, there is need for the involvement and cooperation of all segments of society. The casting of blame just on blacks is as much a mistake as blaming everything on racism. It may satisfy our need for quick and easy solutions, but it does not begin to address the issues.
Received More Boos
In the more recent past, Catholic leaders in dioceses and religious communities provided that leadership. This was true at all levels. At the highest level, courageous bishops like Patrick O’Boyle in Washington, D.C., Joseph Rummel of New Orleans and Lawrence Shehan in Baltimore courageously challenged their own flocks in confronting segregated parochial schools, segregated Catholic hospitals, and segregated housing.
Cardinal Shehan boasted to the religious leaders of other denominations in Baltimore that he received more boos than they from the angry white audience as they stood before the Baltimore City Council to advocate for fair housing in that city.
In 1951, the Josephites established St. Augustine, the all-black Catholic high school in New Orleans that sent more black students to Harvard, Yale and the other Ivies, than any other school in the country. The images of nuns in full habits and priests in black suits gave powerful moral witness to the civil rights marches. The Archdiocese of Chicago led the way in the country in the establishment of interracial councils among lay leaders in parishes throughout the archdiocese. It is safe to say, although not properly acknowledged, that the Catholic Church was very much in the forefront of change.
Today a different test exists, one that is, in many ways, far more challenging and difficult but that does require as much, or more, leadership from Catholics. The enormously rich and bountiful, but often overlooked, treasure of Catholic social teaching provides for us a guide. We must address this issue and all that divide our country, chief of which is the issue of race — issues that hold us back from providing to the rest of this conflict-driven world the example of leadership that is badly needed.
Bishop Ricard, S.S.J., is retired bishop of the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese, and is currently rector of St. Joseph Seminary, Washington, D.C.