Expected to be the largest gathering of churchmen of all faiths ever assembled to witness to racial justice, the Church Assembly on Civil Rights opens of Tuesday, April 28th (1964) in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the National Council of Churches commission on religion and race, the assembly is to begin with an interfaith convocation at Georgetown University. The Protestant meetings will be held each morning at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation. After morning worship and orientation sessions, delegates will visit senators now engaged in hearings on the civil rights bill. The assembly will continue as long as necessary. And apparently this means that it will remain in session as long as the filibuster against the civil rights bill prevents senate action. It is probable that this daily witness to the need for a just civil rights bill will change only two or three Senate votes ---- if any at all. But religious forces should demonstrate where they stand, and two or three votes could be the margin of victory for racial justice.
As a result of this momentous event, I share with you this sermon on "Freedom's Unfinished Business"
History would mark it: the summer of 1963 was a time of revolution, the season when 19 million U.S. Negroes demanded payment on the century-old promissory note called the Emancipation Proclamation. And the demand for payment has continued, and will continue until fulfilled.
Lincoln's act epitomizes in the history of the Negro in America the break from the long dark past of slavery and the beginning of freedom. It was the beginning not only of the first realistic hope, but, in fact, of the continuity of family and society, of memory and group self-conscieousness as well.
But a broader significance lies in the meaning of emancipation for the American people as a whole and for the institutions of the society they had vainly attempted to shape after the democratic and Christian ideal under the impossible compromise of caste. Here too was a beginning, a simple act that ended all argument even if it did not end the war. For from that point on, the nation turned its direction, however imperfectly and twisting, toward the practical demands of full and equal citizenship.
There followed the 13th(1865) Amendment, 14th(1866) and 15th(1869) Constitutional Amendments, which respectively outlawed slavery forever, granted the same full rights to all citizens, assured equal protection of the law, and firmly established the right to vote. The 14th Amendment became for all citizens the hallmark of constitutional protection, of individual civil rights -- far beyond the matter of Negro discrimination. In 544 decisions of the US Supreme Court involving equal protection prior to 1959, the vast majority, 77% dealth with individual and corporate economic rights.
Emancipation and the civil rights amendments established a new and determinative bench mark of American public policy. But their enactment did not bring to fruition the purpose of full and equal rights for the American Negro. Well-intended reconstruction reforms were short-lived; political redemption of the South ensured under the slogan of white supremacy. Violence and intimidation emerged as a deliverate form of social control in "keeping the Negro in his place". Segregation laws and the forms of racial etequette, which were far more encompassing but equally punitive, became the order of the day.
By 1900 the Negro found himself a pariah, a second-class citizen, held in that status not only by public indifference but also by a new and overwhelming concurrence of legal, political, and economic sanctions. The years immediately after have been called by historians the "nadir", the lowpoint, of Negro life and expectation, but the status to which the Negro had been reduced at that time continued unyielding for at least two generations.
In today's perspective the first 50 years after the emancipation were in reality a kind of "dark age". Nothing of significance took place, not a single important gain in public policy, legislation, or judicial decision.
The seeds of change were planted during this period, however, in the great impersonal forces that emerged from two world wars, a sustained and major period of economic depression, accelerating industrialization, increase bargaining strength and organizational growth of labor, heightened international dependence and the drive toward national self-determination by the former colonial nonwhite peoples
Of special direct significance was the beginning of the "great migration" northward and westward by the Negro, continuing in accelerated spurts to produce in recent years a radical distribution of the the Negro population that for the first time in history has placed in the Negro's hands the ability to influence national politics.
Out of the frustrations of this early experience a "back to Africa" movement sprang up in the Negro community. It was a counterpart and in some degree a forerunner of the current "black nationalist" or "Black Muslim" movement, Furtunately, it was shortlived. Like its successor, it failed to convince the major part of the Negro community that there as realy any hope in escape or that there was a "promised land" available anywhere, even in Africa.
From the same conditions the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League emerged as stable and sustained leadership organizations in the Negro community, geared to the reality and necessity of fighting for the only citizenship rights Negroes could claim, rights of Americans.
The single most important vehicle for advance was in motion in the late 1930's when Attorney Charles Houston conceived the strategy of legal action to secure basic constitutional rights of citizenship. Then later his associate Thurgood Marshall applied and extended that strategy to the education, housing and voting and transportation fronts during the following 20 years.
Only during the last decade or so can it be said that meaningful progress has been made toward basic equality of rights and opportunities. Most important of all is that the issue has risen to the level of clear recognition and confrontation as the major domestic public issue. As disturbing as this recognition may be when we realize that its resolution can no longer be pushed back to come indefinite point in time, it is an achievement that may be even more fundamental than the specific civil rights gains themselves.
The student sit-in movements that swept parts of the country in the past few years gave indication that even the important gains made had been too limited, that they had set for themselves a low level of expectation and had congratulated themselves too easily on the rate and scope of progress. They set a tone of aggressiveness that has affected Negro leadership at all levels and in all parts of the country.
In the clear candid simplicity of their appeals, the proponents of non-violent direct action bypassed the niceties of debate and hairsplitting, which had become sloganized in the desegration controversy as "moderation" and "gradualism". Even more, they raised a single standard of morality and expectation in the insistence that the purpose of their movement lay in the absolute claim of personal dignity denied to them by the racial system in all of its manifistations, including that of the institutional church. The youth were proof of the observation made by Alexis de Toqueville more than 100 years before that the passion for equality in democracies is "ardent, insatiable, and invincible".
A little bit of equality and freedom will no longer suffice, indeed if it ever did. Martin Luther King a year ago said, "America has given the Negro people a bad check; it has come back marked 'insufficient funds'. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off, or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sublit path of racial justice. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges". There will be no turning back the clock to a romantic past of leisurely change, and the granting of opportunity thru a sifting down of benefits from a monopolized surplus. The demands of Negro leadership will increase and they will cover the tragic disparity of opportunity in the emplyment, housing and other welfare fields, in addition to the unfilled gaps of civil rights.
Religious bodies in America have not been faithful to their prophetic mission on the question of racial justice. In the midst of a nation rife with racial animosity, the church too often has been content to mouth pious irrelevances and sanctimonious trivialities. Called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anestetizing security of stained-glass windows.
Called to lead men on the highway of brotherhood and to summon them to rise above the narrow confines of race and class, it has often been an active participant in shaping and crystalizing the patterns of the race-caste system. It has so often cast the mantle of its sanctity over the system of segregation and inequality.
And if the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become little more than an irrelevant social club with a thin veneer of religiosity. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for economic and racial justice, where to say that its will has atrophied..
"So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go: first to be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer our gift"...these words of our Lord in Matthew 5:23-24, underscores an awesome axiom and suggest a priority for Christian faith. The axiom is this: genuine efforts toward reconciliation of differences among men are essential to worship acceptable to God. The priority is this: the act of worship does not always begin at the altar, but in the midst of conflicts among men ---at the scene of every concrete conflict known to men the world over. Here the Christian who would worship God must find his way and take his stand, seeking those things that make for peach both within himself and with his brothers, becoming as best he can the embodiment of such peace. Only then may he openly and honestly seek the altar of God.
The priority in time and spirit is clear --"FIRST, be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift".
We can thank God for the worldwide awaking of Christian conscience on the sin of discrimination among men. From every quarter of the globe comes the awareness that the year of our Lord 1964 confronts us with the fact that some of the most disturbing and potentially far-reaching conflicts revolve around racial injustices. Each day new names are being etched in the conscience of Christians: South Africa, Angola, Greenwood, Jackson, Birmingham, Harlem, Chicago. Every section of the United States faces tensions due to racial or ethnic differences. The struggle for justice and dignity --equality before the law, in voting, housing, education, and public accomodations, and employment --- as well as for a community of concern in which men not only may, but do live together as brothers, has never been more urgent or widespread than now.
No local church faces this problem alone: the message of the church univeral is clear beyond doubt.
The World and National Councils of Churches, of which our own denomination is a part, call upon all Christians to obey as well as to proclaim the judgment of God, who made us one and in whose holy sight all hatred and recrimination are sinful. We are called to repent of such strife in our own fellowship, and to call to repentance all men, races and nations now struggling against each other. We are called upon to reject racial or ethnic fears and prejudices, and to recognize them as sinful. They separate man from God and man from man. We are called upon to reject racial segregation in all forms because it is the creature of these evil fears.
The duty of issuing this challenge to the conscience of mankind cannot be limited to pulpit utterances; it rests upon the entire church, and each one in the pew --laity and clergy alike. Words alone will NOT do, for we must be ready to understand and to extend support to those who seek just and effective ways out of the darkness of this problem.
We must continue the struggle now visible in the communions in this land, to remove every trace of segregation from their structure and life. There can be no turning back from this call and commitment. Difficult as the way ahead may seem, every other way is not only sinful, it is suicidal.
The work at hand is clear ---and it is not our work we seek to do. It is the work of Him who called us into the life of the Christian community. We seek the things that make for peace among men. In our common life, the values, relationships, institutions, laws and conventions give clear and convincing witness to our oneness with all men in Jesus Christ. The initiative in this rests with those who see and feel the shame of separation and who recognize that the words we would use in worship become the words we must face in judgment ---"first, be reconciled to your brother".
This type of forthright stand is always costly and never altogether comfortable. We are gravely mistaken to think that religion protects us from the pain and agony of mortal existence. Life is not a euphoria of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease. Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian we must take up our cross, with all its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its mark upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.
Will we continue to bless the status-quo that needs to be blasted and reasure a social order that needs to be reformed, or will we give ourselves unreservedly to God and His Kingdom? Will we continue to march to the drum-beat of conformity and respectability, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul-saving music of eternity?
Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of his dream in these words: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ---'we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal'".
In closing, let me read the statement drawn up by leaders in our own and other religious bodies ---"The religious conscience of America condemns racism as blasphemy against God. It recognizes that the racial segregation and discrimination that flow from it are a denial of the worth which God has given to all persons. We hold that God is the Creator of all men...Consequently in every person there is an innate dignity which is the basis of human rights. These rights constitute a moral claim which must be honored both by all persons and by the state. Denial of such rights is immoral and unChristian."
We pray, O God, that Thou wilt bless our meditation on Thy Word, and give us to know those things that belong to our peace; that, as Thy people, taught in Thy ways, we may take heed of what we hear, and fulfil all wholesome precepts delivered to us; so that by Thy Word of Truth we may at length attain to Him Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life; even Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.