Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, it seemed that television programs were too often broken up by a jarringly familiar announcement: "We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin." Solemn and unadorned, those words never meant good news, and even as a kid I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. If breaking news occurred during school hours, our principal spoke unexpectedly over the loudspeaker.
One such announcement was made on April 4, 1968. Msgr. Paul Morris, principal of Bishop Byrne High School in Memphis, came over the loudspeaker to inform us that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered in our city. His statement was met with stunned silence and, no doubt, fear, as its meaning and its ramifications began to sink in. As I think back to that day, I wonder how the announcement sounded and what feelings it evoked for the few African-American students in our school, one of whom was among my closest friends. Did we go out of our way to show them comfort and kindness?
From an early age I had been aware that our Southern city was divided by race and economics, though at first I did not fully understand how that division unjustly determined so many details of daily life. My parents had taught us to treat all people with respect, and they practiced what they preached.
The grocery and upscale department store in our neighborhood were like many others in the South of my youth. Among the characteristics they shared was a striking symbol: two drinking fountains side by side, identical in every way except that one bore a sign that read "White" and the other a sign that read "Colored." Even as a child I was struck by the strangeness of that arrangement.
As I prepared for confirmation in the sacristy of a parish many years ago, I overheard a young boy ask the pastor if he needed servers. "Sure," said Father. "You can carry the cross."
The blond-headed boy quickly reappeared, vested in an alb and carrying the processional cross. A few moments later, he startled me with a question.
"Do you know what the KKK is?"
I was truly taken aback. "Yes," I said. "That’s the Ku Klux Klan. We don’t agree at all with what they stand for. Why are you asking about them?"
"I heard they’re coming to town, and I’m afraid because my father and my sister are from Mexico." I tried to reassure him that his father and sister were in no danger, that the police would be aware of anything unusual that might be planned. Overhearing our conversation, his mother offered background on his question and added more reassuring words for her son. His sister, smiling, was talking with friends nearby. His father was in line for the entrance procession, for he would be a confirmation sponsor. The entire family is bilingual.
It broke my heart that evening to confront the painful effects of racism again in such a powerful way. Anxiety was written on his face and in his question. With shame I admit that my brief exchange with the server exposed to me once again my own lack of sensitivity to the insidious power of racism.
As I mentioned, I was reared in a home where racist attitudes were neither taught nor tolerated, and I grew to understand more clearly why racism is sinful and antithetical to Christian faith. As a priest I have preached about it.
But I have never had to face racist attitudes directed at me.
It took a server’s anxious question to help me recognize at a more critical level how much work there is to be done — first and most foremost within myself, but also within our communities.
Hearing his question, I was awakened in a new way to what racism does to little kids, to struggling parents, to aging grandparents, to the courageous pioneers and modern-day workers in the civil rights movement — and to people like me, who aren’t near as alert as we should be to its dangerous influence.
Needless to say, the South is by no means the exclusive domain of racism, for its roots and effects are found everywhere in the world, including the state of Washington. They take on local flavor and are often institutionalized according to hometown circumstances. Sadly, racism is found even in parishes, a sign that we have not yet fully given ourselves in conversion to the Lord.
As we mark Dr. King’s birthday on January 15, my thoughts return to news bulletins, water fountains, his assassination in my home town, and an anxious question posed by a 12-year-old altar server.
Heavenly Father, teach us to build a world where little boys and girls, and their parents and grandparents, don’t have to ask fearful questions. Help us rise above racism in all its forms that we may recognize and disarm its influence. May we never reject or frighten any of your little ones, for we are all your sons and daughters, made in your image. Amen.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - January/February 2018