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Reflection: My Journey in a Racially Divided Country

As the country commemorates the legacy of the late preacher and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., a friar reflects on the experiences that affected him and his attitudes. He describes memories of his youth and of events that took place in the 1960s – the period of protests and civil unrest – and of his evolving perspective. Dr. King, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929, was assassinated in April 1968.

I just saw the movie Green Book. Watching it was a very moving experience for me, not only because it led to a reflection on the issue of racism – which still haunts and divides us – but also because it brought me back to experiences that I have had with this issue. I do not pretend to offer a thorough study or analysis of every facet of racism or the politics associated with it, nor will I comment much on the movie. I will simply reflect on my own experience of what I consider to be an evil that must be eliminated.

As a child, I was taught by my parents, and at school by the Sisters of St. Joseph, that prejudice against African Americans (then politely referred to as Negroes) was wrong. It was also made clear that prejudice against Jews, and against various ethnic groups, was wrong. Also, segregation in the South was denounced as an evil, but no mention was made of the racism in our own backyards. That was the teaching. But the ugly use of the N word, as well as derogatory references to Jews were often heard on the streets of the Boston neighborhood where I grew up. When I think back, I realize that as a youngster I rarely had any interactions with blacks.

Green Book tells a story that happened in 1962, the year I graduated from high school and entered the Franciscan Order through Immaculate Conception Province. I had begun to hear of Martin Luther King, Jr. who was often referred to as a radical and troublemaker. While I was in formation in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, as well as the anti-Vietnam War movement, went into high gear. At that time, seminaries and religious formation programs were moving slowly from a pre-Vatican II closed mentality to one of more openness. We were beginning to have more access to TV and other media, and were becoming more aware of and committed to both civil rights and the overall issue of social justice. Some of us wanted to go to Selma, Ala., for the now-famous civil rights march. That was not to be. Many of our teachers and superiors wanted to isolate us from what was going on, but most of us resisted that effort.

Studying Non-Violence
It was at this time that Martin Luther King came to be a hero for us. We understood and studied his non-violent approach to seeking racial justice, and his opposition to more radical and violent groups like the Black Panthers.

By 1968, I was in first-year theology in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. We were shocked in April of that year by the assassination of Dr. King, and just two months later, in June, by the assassination of Senator Bobby Kennedy. Our superiors reluctantly allowed us to attend a memorial service for Dr. King in nearby Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

I was ordained in 1971 and was assigned to teach high school in Boston. I was appalled by the racism of many students and their parents. By 1974, I had joined Holy Name Province and was temporarily assigned to St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street. At this time, court-ordered busing was taking place in Boston and Joe Sullivan, OFM, the Shrine’s guardian, invited me to go with him and some of the other friars to ride the buses along with clergy and religious of various denominations. This was done to try to provide a balance against the violence perpetrated by whites against buses filled with black students. There was very little black against white violence. The presence of clergy seemed to have a calming effect, though nothing really had changed in people’s attitudes.

During the 60s, significant civil rights legislation was passed. While that was important,  I have come to realize that although changing laws helps, the change in our hearts is what is really necessary.

Learning from Experiences
Moving forward several decades, I remember well the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president. Many thought that because an African American had become president that the issue of civil rights had been resolved. We all know better than that. The backlash against the mere thought of a black president showed that much was yet to be done, not to mention the fact that with the election of President Trump the ugliness of hatred and prejudice once again came to the forefront, as though some of the political rhetoric gave permission for hatred to surface.

In recent years, I have learned that I can’t get by with simply saying, “I’m not racist.” Though not consciously so, I am realizing that I have picked up, over the years, certain cultural stereotypes that need to be eliminated in my life. Even more to the point, I am growing in awareness of white privilege. That is a difficult issue for many of us white folk to admit. One cannot simply say, “I don’t want to be privileged.” That may be so, but we live in a system where that is a fact – and we must work hard to change that.

In writing this piece, I was asked to offer my own experience of dealing with this issue. I am sure that there are gaps in my experience and that I have much to learn. I hope that those who read this might reflect on their own experiences of dealing with racism as we honor Dr. King this week.

— Fr. John, a resident of St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla., is a member of HNP’s Ministry of the Word and the author of the blog The Wandering Friar. He marked his 50th anniversary of profession in 2014. The previous reflection published in HNP Today, by Julian Jagudilla, OFM, was titled “Bearing Glad Tidings to Those Who Sit in the Darkness of Uncertainty.” 

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at communications@hnp.org. Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources page of HNP.org.

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