Why They Marched On Washington
America will never forget. On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington with 300,000 demonstrators.
It was hot. There was no place to sit. Bathrooms were scarce. Yet that didn't seem to matter.
These Americans marched for justice and liberty for all in a country plagued at the time with apartheid-like structures of racism and oppression.
Millions of Americans followed the march on Washington by radio and television. King, a 34-year-old preacher, stood before the nation echoing again and again, “I have a dream.”
He quoted the Bible and the Declaration of Independence.
He exhorted America to “let freedom ring from every mountainside.”
After describing his dream, the American dream, he ended by shouting in a powerful sermonic tone, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!“
Marchers that day witnessed a historical event. It marked a turning point in the battle for human rights and civil rights.
For instance, Geneva Mays, a retired federal worker for the Department of Transportation, was there that day. She said, “I always admired King, so I was waiting for him to speak. From where I was seated I could see his notes. He sort of pushed them aside and started speaking extemporaneously about this dream and his vision for America. I was blown away. I was listening to this man and feasting on every word he said. After the march was over, I wanted to make a difference.
Suzy Karpel Gebhardt recalls the spirit that dominated the march: “My family was 1 involved in the civil-rights movement. I came to the march with a group of youth from a summer camp from New York. We were all involved in the civil-rights movement. It was an integrated group. Violence was the furthest thing from our minds.”
America has come a long way since the 1963 civil-rights march. Few dispute that claim. Yet social justice continues to be a very contentious issue in America. With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many contend that America is now a just society. Others argue that's simply not true in practice. Social injustice still exists. Who's right?
To answer this question demands a clear understanding of social justice.
American culture takes its understanding of social justice from traditions of common law, legal positivism and economic liberalism.
Consequently, American justice is more procedural than substantive. To many of us, justice means every American should be offered a fair process. But the result or outcome of the process isn't necessarily “just” when judged against an objective moral standard.
When it comes to justice, the American legal culture emphasizes notions such as “due process of law” or “equal protection under the law.” On the economic front, American justice means equal opportunity, open competition and nondiscrimination. So, a just economic system affords everyone the chance to compete without taking into account the result of the competition. Many Americans hold to this legalistic vision of social justice. They say it's fair.
But is it? The Church's social doctrine maintains that social justice is much more than a fair process. Social justice, from an ethical standpoint, begins and ends with a respect for the dignity of human beings, created in the image of God. This is the objective moral standard to measure whether a social or economic situation is just or unjust.
Respect for human dignity, for many, comes across as a rather vague and impractical criterion when trying to determine a just or unjust situation.
What does respect for human dignity mean? Besides that, how can it be put into practice?
Respecting human dignity merely means fostering in society a fraternal sense. The Second Vatican Council's document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, explains how to respect the dignity of others: “Everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ bearing in mind above all his life and the means necessary for living it in a dignified way.”
If we really learn to see others as another self, we would take an extraordinary interest in the plight of the unborn, the sick, the poor, the ignorant and the elderly. To see others as another self serves as the best antidote against the radical individualism of modern culture.
All of this entails the notion of human solidarity. As human beings created by God, we share the same origin, the same nature and, for Christians, the same common redemption in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Consequently, to see others as another self implies an objective reality. It's not just a metaphorical image.
For this reason, we should be willing to share our spiritual, material and cultural goods with others to build a more just society.
Social justice, in its deepest sense, cannot be achieved solely through legislative or regulatory action by the state. As a relational virtue, social justice presupposes freedom.
State action, of course, plays a crucial role since the law can encourage, uphold and reward justice and equity in private relations. This would create a culture favorable to virtue. Ultimately, social justice requires conversion of hearts. People with converted hearts would apply the values of the Gospel to the social order.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day reminds us all to keep working for the American dream. That is, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
Legionary of Christ Father Andrew McNair writes from Wakefield, Rhode Island.
- January 18-24, 2004