Published August 28, 2013
ATLANTA—On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory answered these questions from The Georgia Bulletin about its significance and his reflections as a Catholic and African-American then and now.
What is your memory of the original March on Washington, where you were, and how acutely aware you were of it and of Rev. Martin Luther King’s speech at that time?
I was 15 years old and preparing to enter my junior year at the High School Seminary in Chicago (Quigley Prep Seminary South). While I did not travel to D.C. for the event, I was riveted at the television coverage. I realized that history was being made and the speech was thrilling to hear as it touched upon so many universal desires of people of color and of all those who had long worked for justice and equality. The speech itself was the crown of a drama that had been playing out across our nation in both the South and the North.
Although you grew up in the north, in Chicago, not under Jim Crow laws, did you experience discrimination in daily life there in the 1960s? Did you experience discrimination within the Church as a seminarian and young priest?
Dr. King once described the hatred and venom that he encountered at a protest march in a Chicago suburb as the most violent that he had ever experienced. The racism in the North was absolutely present, although not institutionalized as in the South. (Chicago) Cardinal (Joseph) Bernardin—a son of the South—once told me that he believed that racial harmony and friendship would occur much more quickly in the South than in the North because the institution of segregation was a public reality, whereas racial discrimination in the North was more concealed and surreptitious. It was the difference of treating a cancer that was self-contained and one that had metastasized and was more subversive.
I did encounter discrimination as a seminarian and as a young priest. Nevertheless, I also was fortunate enough to have discovered people who were brave enough to change, to undergo a transformation in attitudes, to experience metanoia. Some of my classmates had never experienced a black person before; some had few encounters of any people beyond their own ethnic enclaves. We were only 13 years old when we met and had a lot to learn about life. Some of them occasionally said things that were offensive, rude and insulting to me and to other kids who came from different backgrounds. However, when we encountered each other as individuals, there was an opportunity to discover just how much we had in common—contrary to what they may have learned in their homes and neighborhoods. My first two assignments (as a deacon and a newly ordained priest) were in economically upscale, wonderful suburban communities and I must say that there were a few unpleasant occasions, but in a short time, there developed a love and an affection between the people and me that remains a strong bond even today. Racism, after all, is built upon ignorance and unfamiliarity. When we encounter other people as people with their diversity intact, and not merely seeing them like ourselves, racism is often quashed.
Between 1963 and today, how has your understanding of the importance of Rev. King and the civil rights movement deepened?
The civil rights movement was much larger than any single individual—even Dr. King himself—since its success was dependent upon the witness of thousands of courageous individuals, some of whom gave their own lives as the price of its worth. Dr. King appeared on the horizon of history with his unique gifts that enabled him to articulate the aspirations of black people and all those who labored for justice and freedom. He, along with all of the great souls who spoke, wrote, sat-in, endured water hoses and vicious dogs, gave what little financial support that they had, opened their homes in welcome and their hearts in support to people who rode buses and walked for freedom, and, above all, those who died for the civil rights are the legacy of this great moment of freedom. The civil rights movement is a testimony of the courage of a pantheon of martyrs from Medgar Evers, to Malcolm X, to Viola Liuzzo, to James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, to the little girls who died in the church bombing in Birmingham, to Dr. King and thousands of unnamed others. Those names punctuated my youth as the civil rights movement advanced toward freedom.
Dr. King’s words: “I have a dream” and all people being judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” have entered American consciousness. There is still a gap between that vision and reality. Where would you evaluate that progress has been made? What is a high priority in your mind to address today?
We have made unquestioned progress on many fronts, including in the political arena, but we now face other challenges in the pursuit of justice. Violence against all forms of life has persisted, if not increased. We may no longer lynch people, but we euthanize the unwanted, experiment with fledgling human life, kill those we deem dangerous and expendable, we slaughter those within the womb as a perverted expression of freedom. We could certainly learn powerful lessons from nonviolence in such a violent context, as we now seem to find ourselves.
The inspiration of Rev. King came from Scripture: the cry for justice of the Old Testament prophets, as one example, and the nonviolent way that Jesus lived and died while always proclaiming the Gospel, as another. From the perspective of 50 years later, what scriptural admonition and challenge for Americans would you highlight today as most urgent?
I closed my weekly column this week with a citation from St. Luke’s Gospel that calls us who have been given so much to realize that much is now expected from us. We live in a majestic land with so many opportunities that only places great obligations upon all of us to make a better yield on the privileges that we enjoy. Our youngsters, white, black, Hispanic, and Asian, all of our youngsters must be challenged to produce leaders who will guide us into a better and more secure future and they must achieve this dream by working together.