By John DeCostanza, Jr.
On this date 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Alabama State House in Montgomery and addressed a crowd of 25,000 who had assembled there at the conclusion of the storied Voting Rights March which began with the violent repression of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. After being blocked by the forces of Governor George Wallace, the publicly televised, violent repression of the marchers on March 7 was transformed into a stunning victory eight days later when a movement had seized the energy of a nation and the attention of a President, and Lyndon Johnson declared a governmental commitment to securing voting rights for all Americans.
In his message to the gathered throng, King transformed the request of normalcy that came from the white power structure in Alabama, one that sought to allow the status quo of Jim Crow and white hegemony to remain intact. King famously replied:
It is normalcy all over our country (Yes, sir) which leaves the Negro perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of vast ocean of material prosperity… The only normalcy that we will settle for (Yes, sir) is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgment to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Yes, sir) The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.[i]
Have we settled for a normalcy in which God’s work of racial justice still struggles to be born? How might we help it along?
While I was walking with students from Dominican University on a Civil Rights immersion in the week following the #Selma50 Jubilee and President Obama’s rousing address, Anthony Hill, naked and unarmed, was shot miles away from where the students and I were staying in Atlanta. The perishing of black bodies remains all too normal in our world and this violence infiltrated a week meant to provide sustenance for activism and hope for my students’ vocational commitment to nonviolence and justice-making.
Almost as if on cue, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant scandal broke out that same week and the role of higher education in addressing and combatting racism on and off-campus came into focus on our journey. Then the bloody arrest in Virginia of Martese Johnson, a Chicagoan like many of my students, further convinced us that everyone especially our students are in jeopardy of being both the targets of and the perpetrators of racially-motivated violence.
Microaggressions, which have been the focus of so much of our discourse in higher education in the last few years, are only the surface sheen on that great iceberg of unexamined bias and racism that conceals in the still depths of King’s “ocean of material prosperity” a terrible violence that is being unleashed on our students, neighbors and friends, and on our very selves. All of us must ask ourselves which normalcy we would choose – the normalcy of justice, right relationship and agapic love or the normalcy of complacency that keeps interlocking, systemic oppression in place. This is no false dichotomy.
I believe that particularly within the Catholic community, the historical legacy of our praxis of faith in higher education—incarnated in our theology departments and campus ministry units—stands in the stream of complacency unless we make conscious, explicit, and frequent decisions to engage our students and each other and invite discourse and action about justice, particularly and clearly on the issue of race in the United States.
So I write this to my peers in Catholic campus ministry. I write this to my friends who are theologians and scholars. I write this to my colleagues of every Christian denomination. The signs of the times cannot clamor more loudly. Reflect on your curriculums, your programs, and your praxis and ask yourselves the following: Where am I teaching anti-racism? Where am I inviting new forms of praxis that ground themselves in the historically marginalized spaces of underrepresented groups? Where am I inviting the story of long suffering peoples to be narrated and explored in my syllabus, in my immediate practice, and in my department’s programming? And most importantly, how am I doing that in a way that empowers and emboldens my students to make such work a vocation no matter their career trajectory? These are just a few questions that have roiled me in the wake of my own experiences with students at and following the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights March in Selma.
The silence on issues of race and privilege and complicity of U.S. white Catholic theologians (many of whom teach our undergraduates and prepare our ministers for service within the U.S. Catholic Church) has been established and continues to be addressed both on this blog and elsewhere, but there remains a significant gap in writing about and devising relational structures and programmatic measures in Catholic campus ministry units to address race and privilege.[ii]
While there is not space here for the dissertation that can be written on the historical roots and ministerial implications of this egregious blind spot in our praxis, I would hope that my colleagues reading this would be invited into a sort of examination of conscience and evaluate the truth of such a broad and risky claim from the vantage point of their own experience.
Like me, perhaps you were the product of a series of engagements with service, liturgy, and faith formation. Did you discuss race and racism in your experiences through Catholic campus ministry? Did you do so across difference in a community of diversity or, instead, was your experience marked by deep conversations about the differences between you and those you were “serving” on an immersion trip? Did theological reflection invite you to consider your own complicity or victimization in power structures? How deeply did those experiences disrupt the notions of race and privilege into which you were socialized no matter your background?
The idea and experience that sparked this piece for Daily Theology is an alternative break immersion that I just completed with ten students, which we named “March: a Civil Rights Journey at 50.” March was an experience that created a critical dialogue between the history of the Civil Rights movement in Selma, Montgomery, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Memphis and the students’ commitments to social action in the here and now. It is not an original idea, though the thematic strands that we explored were the choices of Gil Cook, Assistant Professor of English at Dominican University and me. We borrowed the template for the experience from Heath Carter, Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University, who led a group of more than 50 to the South. We had talked about the possibility of a trip like this since we had taken high school students to the School of the Americas protest in the fall of 2005.
Heath was mentored by Professor Alan Bloom, who died suddenly just over a year ago. The genealogy is important. The immersion’s origin story is sharing that models the Gospel or the post-Resurrection community in Luke-Acts. It stands as a testament to a passion to extend the classroom and, indeed, the ministry center, beyond the four walls of the University. It demonstrates that friendship (Heath and Alan’s, and Heath and mine, and Gil and mine) and justice can carry you (and your students) to important places. The transforming power of relationships like these motivates and sustains us. Christian higher education is all the better when these collaborations invite the intersection of our disciplines and our passions. As ministers and theologians, we all need to learn a lesson from the Movement and not be afraid to be organizers of the march together.
The lesson here is that creative collaborations and growing relationship even and especially those outside of our charism networks (AJCU, ACCU) embodies some of the best qualities of successful social justice movements.
Space for Accompaniment
The immersion is a creative space and a liminal space that is primarily for accompaniment. As ministers or teachers that shape such experiences, we become what critical pedagogue Henry Giroux calls “cultural workers” who learn alongside the students. The March itinerary was built around questions that I wanted to work through – principle among them: What does it take to stand against relentless oppression?
The immersion offered our team the opportunity to engage history, read self, others and God onto and from that history. The contrast between violence and non-violent resistance became important touchstones throughout (predictably), but in manners and through conversations with students that I could not have imagined without seriously considering the questions myself alongside them. These experiences:
ask how people take-up what they take-up; that is, how they participate in, produce, and challenge particular ways of life. The issue is not simply how people are inserted into particular subject positions but also how they create them. To raise that question is automatically to engage the language of specificity, community, diversity, difference, and the struggle for public life.[iv]
The immersion created a liminal space where our team could bear witness to the struggle for public life then and now. Sitting at the feet of the footsoldiers, leaders, and icons of fifty years past was part of the story. The throng on that first weekend in Selma – an estimated 50,000 on Saturday and 90,000 on Sunday to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge – was another equally important part. Whether it was the recognizable faces of the movement like John Lewis and Diane Nash or the faces of thousands of African-Americans walking together in the stream of history, my students and I received the gifts of passion and strength.
What does it take to stand against relentless oppression? As an ally and a beneficiary of privilege, I have a hard time answering that question. Many of the students that I accompanied have daily experiences of it as did many in the Selma generation and many in the crowd. Some even told those stories of their oppression while we waited to listen to a President and to march on a bridge. Each encounter became a place where “socially constructed disparities are deconstructed… teach[ing] us to imagine, to hope for, and to create new possibilities.” [v]
What happened those days in Selma and afterward was what Shawn Copeland calls “Eucharistic solidarity…[and b]ecause that solidarity enfolds us, rather than dismiss “others,” we act in love; rather than refuse “others,” we respond in acts of self-sacrifice—committing ourselves to the long labor of creation, to the enfleshment of freedom.”[vi] The long labor of creation and the enfleshment of freedom came in all sorts of encounters. I am graciously able to share the next two with you through the permission of members of our team.
In Atlanta a few days after we left Selma, we toured the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. One section has a simulation of the lunch counter sit-ins that famously took place in Nashville, TN and in other cities throughout the South and were largely the work of student activism and organizing. The exhibit invites the onlooker to sit on a stool at a replica counter and a put on noise-cancelling headphones. It then runs through a progressively violent and jarring simulation of the abuse that nonviolent protestors endured.
Without immersing you all in every detail, I will share that every one of us had very emotional reactions to the exhibit. When I finished, I realized that one of the students who was seated next to me was having a hard time. She sat weeping, her head in her arms on the counter. The full weight of sacrifice and history and identity came crashing in at once. She is African-American. I placed a hand on her shoulder and she continued to cry. A middle-aged African-American woman approached with a box of tissues. She worked at the exhibit. She gently leaned over and turned the stool with one hand. With one swift motion, she handed the student the tissues and enveloped her in a long embrace. She said, “Honey, it took me three weeks to sit down there, and then it took me three days to recover. They did it for us. You cry as much as you need to.” More appropriate words could not have been spoken this Lent and on this trip – they did it for us.
A day later, we were invited to participate in some of the choral singing that takes place in the afterschool enrichment program at the Global Village Project, a school for refugee girls. We will never forget being invited (all eleven of us) to sit on the floor in the middle of ring of refugee women holding hands as they sang a choral piece that they had been rehearsing for a few weeks. There. In the center of the margin, we found solidarity that truly enfolded us in the rhythmic harmony of the voices of the world, the many voices of God. They were brought together in a kairos moment just like that March across the bridge though intensely less public.
The lesson here is two-fold. First, we cannot imagine new futures for ourselves if we are not open to the possibility of receiving acts of self-sacrifice. Second, Eucharistic solidarity can only come through relationship with and accompaniment by those who have been oppressed and that IS the work of the immersion itself.
Continue the March
Please share your thoughts, your experiences, and your visions so that we can learn from one another. Join me and others out there doing great work to commit yourself anew to the struggle for racial justice. No matter what our identity or the identity of our students, we can make our ministries (teaching, pastoral care, justice) a site of Eucharistic solidarity. For now, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. still ring achingly true on this day fifty years later:
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?” (Yes, sir)[vii]
Let us have the strength of conviction, the certainty of Christian hope, and the passion to continue the march and say with King, “How long? Not long.”
John DeCostanza, Jr. is Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL, and a DMin. candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union.
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr.. “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March**.” Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March. March 25, 1965. Accessed March 19, 2015. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_address_at_the_conclusion_of_selma_march/.
[ii] For a more detailed description of the ways that “the silence of white theologians bespeaks the contradiction between our claims for a universal, ontological human equality and the reality of the social, political, and economic privilege white theologians and ethicists consciously and unconsciously accept and assume,” please see the introduction (from which the preceding quote is taken) and the essays included in Laurie M. Cassidy and Alex Mikulich, eds. Interrupting White Privilege: Catholic Theologians Break the Silence. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007.
[iii] James H. Cone. God of the Oppressed. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997. 139-144.
[iv] Henry A. Giroux. Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education. New York: Routledge, 1992. 135.
[v] M. Shawn Copeland. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.
[vi] Ibid. 128
[vii] Martin Luther King, Jr.. “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March**.”