In 1965, the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights included many Catholic priests, an even greater number of nuns as well as many lay Catholics. At Martin Luther King Jr.’s invitation and against the stated wishes of Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen, they came to join in and support the men and women willing to risk their lives and the lives of their children to demand their civil rights, including the right to vote.
The photographs and film from those days are iconic and, for me, those images came to represent, in no small part, what it meant to be Catholic in the world.
In them we see priests, pushed hard against wooden police barriers, their arms outstretched providing some protection to the people behind them. There are nuns in full habit, arms crossed, hands linked, placing their bodies in front of and around their fellow marchers. Clutching the hands of children, arms linked with black Baptist ministers, mouths open wide, raising their voices in song, chant and prayer – Catholics; clergy, religious and lay, made sure they were there. They were there for the world to see and perhaps more importantly, to have the backs of the people risking their lives on the line. They would not be bullied into staying home, they would not remain silent.
They were a presence, a field of force that showed the world that here, on this day and forever after – the Catholic Church stands with and for the dignity and sacredness of all God’s children. And she stands not just in theory or academia but in the nitty-gritty of everyday living. In the very bodies of her priests and religious, the Catholic Church made known, in The World, that people of all races had the right to participate fully and without constraint in all aspects of our society.
Now – fast-forward fifty years. Once again, people are marching in the street for the right to vote – this time in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. On July 13th, the Moral Monday Movement, in conjunction with the NAACP held a daylong teach-in, march and rally in downtown Winston-Salem. These events were timed to coincide with the opening day of a historic voting rights trial. The trial in Winston-Salem stems from three federal lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department, state NAACP and others over the regressive voting provisions passed by the state legislature.
On the morning of the 13th, I told my husband that I was taking my camera to work with me. I planned to go to the Moral Monday Voting Rights March in Winston-Salem and I could cover it for the paper (diocesan newspaper). He seemed a bit hesitant about me going by myself but I assured him there were sure to be plenty of people from some of the parishes there – I would be anything but alone.
By 5:00PM I was in a prime spot on the corner of Cherry Street right along with television news crews and AP photographers. It wasn’t long before we could hear them coming and not much longer before the headline banners appeared and behind them, 6,000 voices all chanting the same thing- “not one step back!”
I hung out on the corner taking pictures, searching for a familiar parish banner. Unwilling to let the head of the march get too far ahead of me, I gave up my search and waded into the sea of posters, signs, tee-shirts, baby strollers, wheel chairs and chanting voices.
The march route covered approximately ten and a half blocks. By the time I‘d sprinted up to the front again, the head of the march had passed the county courthouse. Reverend William Barber II, the face and voice of Moral Monday was leading the way. Many other clerics of various denominations and faiths, active in the movement had joined arms with him for the last leg back to Corpening Plaza for the final rally.
There was not a priest or sister in sight. No familiar Franciscan robes, no Tau crosses, no cassocks, no habits – full or otherwise.
At the last side street before reaching the entrance to Corpening Plaza, Reverend Dr. Barber, the clerics and a few others were escorted to cars waiting to drive them around the plaza to the back of the stage. I dropped in behind the lead banners and marched into the plaza. Halfway down the steps leading into the plaza I climbed atop a retainer wall. I had an unfettered view of everyone coming into the plaza, the entire plaza square, the stage – surely, I thought, I’ll catch sight of a priest or deacon I’ve met, a sister or perhaps a parish group. I figured I’d spot them from my perch and then I could join them. I could be with them and talk to them about being here, being Catholic – literally in the public square.
That never happened.
Please don’t misunderstand – the Charlotte, NC diocese covers a lot of ground. In the Winston-Salem and Greensboro vicariates alone there are over 20 parishes and missions. There might have been hundreds of Catholics in the plaza that day. But the Church, the Catholic Church, was missing in action.
In his keynote address, Reverend Barber spoke with great passion and love about the rights enjoyed today that were paid for in blood. He talked about the sin of stripping away the dignity of people by whittling away their rights. He spoke of those who were absent that day, those who had not yet understood the assaults on the voting rights of the people of North Carolina, primarily the poor, were assaults on everyone’s dignity. He spoke of those who were afraid, “hiding behind stained glass windows.”
The outcome of the voting rights trial, taking place in Winston-Salem over the next few weeks, will affect not only the people of North Carolina but also people in every state in this country. Black, white, brown – Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist… the poor, the disadvantaged – the single parent, the immigrant, the elderly, the young adults just getting their bearings – everyone and anyone. The Catholic Church must be present – must be a force in this struggle. Not to be seen, or lauded but because it is required of us. We are called to stand up – by our doctrines, by our pope and by our God.
There were hands outstretched, in the plaza on July 13th. There were arms that day, waiting to be linked with ours.
Where were we?