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Good race relations is not just an American thing, it's democracy

  • 10 March 2015
Martin Luther King’s birthday on 19 January is a public holiday here in the USA.  This year it was a much more political affair than it has been in recent years.  The spate of police killings of young African American men such as occurred at Ferguson caused the whole country to take pause, wondering what is happening in race relations.  

Last Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the first of the voting right marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  Ultimately King led those marchers to Montgomery, the state capital, seeking the franchise for all Americans.  

The movie Selma was launched over the long weekend of the King birthday holiday.  It’s a great study in race relations even though it is marred by a too simplistic condemnation of President Lyndon B Johnson who was doing all he could to secure the changes through Congress.  The change required action both by King and Johnson.  It is often that way.

On the Boston College campus, faculty and students gathered to talk about race in modern America.  They held a wonderful celebration of song, dance and stirring evangelical rhetoric led by Rev Brandon Crowley, pastor of the Myrtle Baptist Church.  That stirring black Baptist preaching was a change from the usual Jesuit preaching on the campus!  

The celebration was called ‘Wade in the Water’, the title of one of the old negro spiritual hymns which draws on the Old Testament Exodus theme of crossing the sea to freedom, as well as the scene in John’s gospel at the pool of the Sheep Gate: ‘From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.’

I had the opportunity to visit the grand monument to King in Washington DC earlier in my stay, when the weather was kinder.  I also stood at the spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech in August 1963.  Each time I have called King to mind, I have remembered his letter to the white clergy he sent from Birmingham Jail earlier in 1963.  I have been challenged and inspired by his observations about the role and stance of the ‘white moderate’. He wrote to his white fellow clergy:

I must confess that over the last few years