“Now it the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.
“Now it the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
“Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God’s children.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have A Dream” March on Washington Speech, August 28, 1963
I don’t remember anything about the 1963 March on Washington, but today I know that the courageous leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. affected my life profoundly.
Growing up in a very strict family in suburban Philadelphia in the early 1960’s, I did not get much exposure to people outside of our somewhat insular Catholic parish circle at St. Margaret’s. No black children attended our school, but for that matter, we also had no contact with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Unitarians or Jews, all of whom were grouped into that dreaded category of “non-Catholics” who were likely to have no hope of salvation. My parents were the children of immigrants, Irish and Italian, but they put a huge emphasis on simply being American. Only later would I hear Mom tell stories of the dreadful discrimination she suffered growing up as an Italian girl in the rough German/Irish neighborhoods of north Philadelphia. And of course, marrying that big Irish guy from Drexel Hill was about as “mixed” a marriage as could happen among Catholics in 1944.
We were not allowed to watch much TV, so our knowledge of world events was limited. If we knew about Dr. Martin Luther King’s march for jobs and justice in August 1963, it probably was through some passing reference that Dad might have made to “trouble” with “those people.” Dad was a very good man, a WWII veteran, a patriot and deeply religious man whose world view reflected the cultural attitudes of the Irish Catholic community that shaped him and, consequently, his family and children. (The McGuire kids were the only ones in St. Margaret’s grade school who wore “Nixon for President” buttons in 1960, the year President Kennedy was elected. The nuns were aghast.)
I carried that conservative world view with me when I entered Trinity in the Fall of 1970. I remember a faculty member telling me that I would soon change, that I could not be successful intellectually while being close-minded about the urgent social and political movements shaping the new world order. By then Dr. King was dead, cut down by the assassin’s bullet, and the cities burned in the subsequent riots while college campuses were roiling with antiwar demonstrations. Vietnam was raging, civil rights and antiwar protesters were marching, women’s rights began to flourish. Trinity, too, was still a somewhat insular place, still predominantly white and Catholic, but the campus culture was progressive thanks to the Sisters of Notre Dame and their passion for action for social justice. At Trinity, I met students who were deeply engaged with the revolutionary waves marching up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Trinity proved to be exactly the liberating experience my teacher predicted, and to my father’s dismay, I soon was in the thick of the protests and marches for justice.
But still, my first real experience with the utter injustice of racism and discrimination did not come until my second year of law school at Georgetown when I taught Street Law in a D.C. Public High School. Despite years of learning the theories of inequality and justice, I didn’t really “get it” until I was immersed in the reality of the consequences of segregation in education. Oh, sure, the D.C. Public Schools were legally integrated by the late 1970’s, but segregation was still the plain fact of life, and disparate treatment of black students educationally and economically was clear.
My immersion started my conversion, and as part of my work in the Street Law Clinic, I began to study and learn about the legal, political and social history of civil rights in America in earnest. For the first time, I actually read Dr. King’s speech and other writings, and I began to develop my own ideology for advocacy on issues of justice and freedom for all people. I spent the first part of my career after law school running the Street Law program in all of the DCPS high schools across the city, and I became painfully familiar with the debilitating social consequences of the disenfranchisement of our city as well as the racism that undergirds D.C.’s disenfranchisement even today, shamefully denying the citizens of the nation’s capital voting rights in Congress.
Trinity, too, was on a conversion journey, and when I returned to our campus in 1989 as the president, I was pleased to see many African American students enrolled in our graduate evening classes and the Weekend College of that time — many more than when I was a student, but still, not enough. Over time, Trinity became stronger, clearer and bolder in proclaiming our commitment to social justice, freedom and equality through making our educational programs more accessible and welcoming to students of many different races and ethnicities, many different religious and cultural traditions, languages and economic circumstances.
Trinity began recruiting students from D.C. in earnest, spurred on by Sisters of Notre Dame who urged us to make this great education accessible to the women who could profit the most from this mission. We had times of conflict and struggle over the true meaning of a Catholic college devoted to Gospel justice, but in the end, our fundamental commitment to human dignity made Trinity a place of hope, encouragement and opportunity for the thousands of students from D.C. and elsewhere who have enrolled here in the last two decades.
As we have welcomed students back to campus this week, and the Marble Corridor is alive with so much activity, I have found myself reflecting on the long journey of the conversion experience for justice and equality, for me, for Trinity, for our nation. Trinity is thriving today because of our commitment to the education of students who once were on the margins, who were excluded here and elsewhere in the past, who, even today, still bear the consequences of racism and bigotry in too many places.
We live today in the long shadow of Dr. King’s dream for conversion, liberation, for a true human community shaped with the grace of respect and dignity for all people. We know that the dream is incomplete. 50 years after Dr. King proclaimed his dream for true equality and freedom for African Americans and all people, the United States is still deeply riven with the ugliness of racism and bigotry showing up in everything from a Supreme Court decision that makes a mockery of the bloody sacrifices that were made to achieve voting rights, to the stain of Trayvon Martin’s death on our national consciousness, to the ugly racism that trails President Obama underneath the polite surface of our society.
Wherever we were 50 years ago, however far we have traveled, we must remember that the dream is never done, that the quest for true human equality and freedom must find renewal and even greater nourishment in each generation. Today, this week, this year, let’s use this historic moment to redouble our personal, institutional and national commitment to make justice and the peace that it fosters the true purpose of all that we do each day.
“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” ” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream,” 1963 March on Washington)
What are your thoughts on this historic moment? Do you have memories of 1963? Did you attend any of the events in Washington this week? Please click on the “comments” link below or send comments and reflections to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will publish them in my next blog.