The legacy of the Civil Rights movement is honored this week amid reflection on today’s civil rights front: the right to life in a culture of death.
In Speaker John Boehner’s first address to the House of Representatives on January 5th he said that “America is more than a country. It’s an idea.” Like any great idea, it did not begin in its current form. The idea of America evolved with fits and starts in response to both prophets and protests – and wars, and great losses, and immense sacrifices. In my post, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” last year, I wrote of the decade from 1963 to 1973 in which it seems that the very idea of America gave birth to a Civil Rights movement that was hard fought and continues to be. Milestones were reached, but the Civil Rights movement never ended. It now just takes another form.
In another post, “Prophets on the Path to Peace,” I wrote of how civil rights as an idea is not yet a done deal. Just as the idea formed and took shape for some in America, it failed for an entire class of others. Just as the idea of civil rights embraced our fellow Americans living lives marked by racial divisions and distinctions, it failed for millions of others not yet living outside the womb.
In the decade of the 1970s, it sometimes felt like I would be in school forever. After four years studying psychology and philosophy at Saint Anselm College, a Benedictine school just outside Manchester, NH, I commenced another four years immersed in theology and two millennia of Church history at Saint Mary Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland. Saint Mary’s is the oldest Catholic seminary in the United States, and, at that time at least, the most academically demanding.
Like many seminarians then, I was chronically poor. During the rationing and long gas lines of the late 1970s, I paid $900 for a clunker of a Chevy Malibu. It had a V-8 engine that could pass everything but gas stations, and when I bought it, it burned more oil than gasoline. A friend and I spent all our spare time in the summer of 1978 rebuilding its engine before I drove it off to Baltimore to begin the great adventure of faith seeking understanding. I was proud of the fact that we got the Chevy’s gas mileage up to a point where I could sit in the long lines for gas with a clear conscience, though I don’t think General Motors would have still recognized its engine. I loved that car, not the least for where it took me.
Roaring around Baltimore from 1978 to 1982, I quickly learned that the great city was second only to my native Boston for the lure and lore of its history. Outside the seminary, there was a whole other field of education within 100 miles Of Baltimore in any direction. So Saturdays in the seminary were devoted to field trips to the birth and growth of America; to the places where the idea first took shape. That’s when visiting history became my hobby, and an important part of my education. Much more than my loss of freedom, now, I mourn the passing of the world beyond these stone walls.
UPON THE FIELD OF BATTLE
One place stands out strikingly against the background of monuments and memories I visited and studied. I had some friends among the seminarians at Mount Saint Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, a two+ hour drive from Baltimore. On several Saturdays, my speedy Chevy drove north to pick up my friends and head for Gettysburg, just a few miles from Emmitsburg straddling the Maryland and Pennsylvania state line.
It’s hard to describe what I felt the first time I stood surveying the very heart of America’s most terrible war. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought there over the first three days of July in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address was delivered on that field on November 18, 1863, just three months after the horrific three-day battle that took the lives of over 80,000 Americans.
For some reason, standing on that field of battle for the first time in 1979, I thought of John F. Kennedy and the infamous day I wrote of in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” It came as a shock to me to realize that the defining battle of the American Civil War – that I once thought to be ancient history – was fought and then immortalized in Lincoln’s great speech just l00 years before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was exactly 100 years, barely three generations in the lives of men. The Battle of Gettysburg, and all that led up to it, took place in the lifetime of my grandfather’s grandfather.
Suddenly, with that revelation, I felt linked to all that came before. Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1974 historical novel, The Killer Angels (Random House) relived this most decisive battle of the American Civil War, and my first visit came just after this great work of historical storytelling.
It felt strange standing for the first time upon Cemetery Hill where the Civil War pivoted toward victory for the North. But there was really no victory. It was America against itself, and the powerful imprint of death and sacrifice was still upon that battlefield as I stood there 116 years later. It was both eerie and inspiring. My friends went off to tour the museum and stare at row upon row of cannonballs and muskets, but I couldn’t leave that field. I realized standing there for the first time just what an idea can cost, and what hardship and sacrifice it can demand from those who serve it.
THE RIGHT TO LIFE AND THE COST OF LIBERTY
By the time the Civil War was over, it demanded of America more lives of its citizens than World War I and World War II combined. Some 500,000 lost their lives fighting this nation’s war against itself. I didn’t understand then just how this happened, but standing on that that Gettysburg field, I resolved to one day understand. Men and women can women can sacrifice their lives for an idea, or an ideal, or a principle that is far greater than themselves. They can sacrifice freedom, even, to stand firm stand firm on a ground made solid by conscience.
Many historians and legal scholars draw a direct line between the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 and a single case decided before the before the U.S. Supreme Court four years earlier in 1857. As a causal connection, connection, the decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford enraged conscience driven abolitionists and encouraged slave owners. It broadened the political and ideological abyss between the North and the South, and it led directly to a war of nothing less than the demands of conscience versus the realities of economic necessity and convenience.
Dred Scott was a fugitive slave. In 1848 at the age of 62, he brought suit to claim his freedom on the ground that he resided in a free territory established by the 1820 Missouri Compromise. As I wrote in “Prophets on the Path to Peace” last year, this is a piece of American history worth knowing, though many would prefer not to know. Dred Scott was purchased and lived his life as a slave, but was then taken by his “master”, an Army surgeon, to a free territory rendered free by the Missouri Compromise.
In Dred Scott v. Sanford Justice Taney wrote for the majority that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and violated the Fifth Amendment because it deprived Southerners of a right to bring their private property – i.e., slaves – wherever they wanted. The decision further ruled that Congress did not have the authority to establish free territory, and in its most alarming language, Justice Taney’s decision established that black men are not citizens of the United States and had “no rights any white man was bound to respect.”
Reflecting upon this now, five generations later, is made all the more painful by the recognition that Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney was a Catholic, though one who surely put the realities of national economics above the tenets of faith or conscience. As I wrote in “Squanto, the Pilgrims and the Pope” in November, the Catholic Church had three centuries earlier established slavery as a moral evil, and declared it unacceptable in any Catholic country. It would take another 250 years from the founding of America for this nation to put economic interest aside and catch up with the conscience of the Catholic Church.
Justice Taney’s decision caused some in his day to conclude that there is a higher moral law than the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution at any given time in history. There is a higher moral law, and it led the nation on a direct path from Dred Scott to Civil War. The war came as a result of the conscience of individuals gradually forming a consensus about slavery and the rights of man.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING AND FATHER JOHN CROWLEY
One hundred years after that war was fought, its ripples continued throughout this nation. In 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated for his unwavering and prophetic public witness in a story that we all know only too well. Father Richard John Neuhaus, whom I wrote of two weeks ago in “In Memoriam,” wrote of the radical grace exemplified by Martin Luther King in American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile written by Fr. Neuhaus and published posthumously. He wrote of Dr. King’s notion of “The Beloved Community” and described his movement as a new order . . .
” … sought by all who know love’s grief in refusing to settle for a community of less than truth and justice uncompromised.”
Think for a moment, please, about that statement. There are not many of us who escape love’s grief – unless we become so shallow as to so steel ourselves against grief that we can ignore it. What a tragedy! Those of us who know love’s grief and refuse to settle for a community – a nation, a Church – of less than truth and justice uncompromised are in for some prophetic suffering.
Three years before Martin Luther King was assassinated, Father John Crowley, a heroic Catholic priest, was nearly driven from Selma, Alabama when he took out a full page ad in the Selma Times-Journal on February 7, 1965.
His ad contained a brilliant essay entitled “The Path to Peace in Selma.” It urged the white community to speak out against racial segregation and discrimination not for the good of the black man and woman, but for the good of ALL men and women. Like the famous Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed on the personal orders of Hitler on April 9, 1945, Father John Crowley called upon fellow priests and other Catholics to put aside their fears of loss and stand by the truth uncompromised. I share a date of birth with the date of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death, and I share a date of ordination with Father John Crowley. These very special men compel me to stand always by the truth uncompromised, and not to fear its cost.
STAND TOGETHER AGAINST THE CULTURE OF DEATH
Martin Luther King lost his life just five years before another divisive Supreme Court decision with grave implications for civil rights. There are some, and they are many, who see in the 1857 decision in Dred Scott the roots of 1973’s Roe v. Wade. In 1973, after the Supreme Court handed down its divided decision in Roe v. Wade, the State of Texas joined other states in filing a petition for a rehearing before the full Court. The Texas dissent declared that the decision in Roe that an unborn child was not a human being with rights to be protected was not at all unlike the decision in Dred Scott that virtually no just person in this nation would ever stand by today.
And just as Dred Scott inspired dissidents of conscience to hear the Commandments of a Higher Authority, Roe v. Wade has inspired similar heroism, most of it barely noticed in the mainstream media, or, worse, taunted.
Have you noticed that much of the loudest ridicule of the Catholic Church in America comes on the heels of legislation that chips away at the right to life and human dignity?
Life Site News has carried the stories of two Canadian women whose sacrifices on behalf of civil rights for the unborn have landed them in prison. Linda Gibbons, a grandmother and prisoner of conscience, has spent much of the last seven years in an Ontario prison because she refuses to comply with a court order demanding that she cease and desist from standing on the sidewalk near an Ontario clinic to present alternatives to abortion. In eerie echoes of the Dred Scott decision, the clinic staff and the Ontario court charged her with interfering with fair commerce by suggesting to clients another way. Linda Gibbons first went to prison at the same time I did, in September 1994.
Mary Wagner took leave from a French convent to “witness to life” as Life Site News has called her sacrifice. In Holy Week last year, Mary was arrested by Vancouver police and remained in jail for months for refusing court orders to cease talking to abortion clinic clients about Project Rachel (www.hopeafterabortion.com).
And you may not know the name, Norma McCorvey. She’s better known as “Jane Roe,” the plaintiff in the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Norma became a Catholic in 1998 and is now a staunch pro-life activist. She is the author of the book, Won By Love (Thomas Nelson, 1998). In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition by Norma McCorvey to reverse Roe v. Wade. In May 2009, she was among the Catholic protestors arrested at the University of Notre Dame during President Obama’s Commencement address.
We can deduce where Martin Luther King would stand on the pressing civil rights issues of this day. There is some annual controversy that his niece, Dr. Alveda King, endeavors to clear up. His niece, Alveda King, staunchly defends Rev. King against claims that he would be a pro-choice or pro-abortion supporter today. She insists that his civil rights agenda would today include a defense of life. It’s no irony that the week that begins in honor of his martyrdom for civil rights ends with the National March for Life in Washington, DC (www.marchforlife.org). Beginning in the fall of 2004, 40 Days for Life (www.40daysforlife.com) has held prayer vigils at 238 locations in the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia. The United States Bishops Conference details the 2011 Respect for Life campaign at www.usccb.org/prolife.
CONCEIVED IN LIBERTY
On the Saturday after my first visit to Gettysburg in 1979, I drove an hour south from Baltimore to Washington, DC. I went first to the Lincoln Memorial where the famous Gettysburg Address is etched into the stone behind the immense man’s monumental presence. The great speech immortalized the struggle for civil rights as an ongoing struggle that must never be set aside if the idea of America is to survive.
As I read it, I thought of that awful battlefield where I stood 116 years later, and also of the civil rights battlefields of today where millions are denied the right to life, and millions more who sacrificed to witness to for them. Lincoln’s memorable words apply no less to them.
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger-sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from those honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863).
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