The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s accomplished a dramatic change in our culture through the strategic use of law.
It started in 1948 when President Harry S. Truman issued an Executive Order to end segregation in the military. The Supreme Court dealt a death blow to segregation in the public schools in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 in a strategy led by NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall. Other legally-sanctioned segregation began to crumble when Rosa Parks was arrested for failing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery on December 1, 1955, which led to legal desegregation of public transportation in that city a year later. The Little Rock public schools were forcibly integrated in 1957 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower called in the National Guard in support of the courage of the Little Rock Nine. President John F. Kennedy established the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in 1961, and sent federal troops to enforce a court order for the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed. President Lyndon B. Johnson strengthened affirmative action by Executive Order in 1965. The Supreme Court ruled that state laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional in 1967. Segregated housing laws were addressed in the Civil Rights Act of 1967. The Supreme Court made busing part of the remedy to historic patters in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971). Congress overrode President Regan's veto to pass the Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1988. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed despite presidential opposition.
There have been legal setbacks, too. Most recently, the Supreme Court in June eroded the Voting Rights Act. There are legal victories for Civil Rights still in need of protection and others yet to be won. These are the sorts of things and the sorts of needs that inspired me to want to be a lawyer.
Still, one of the things I believe is true in light of the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman is that law has about brought us about as far as it is able. This is the reality that inspired me to want to be a priest.
It isn't that I think law has no place in this battle. We cannot afford to take it for granted. It also is not that I think law has nothing to do with the contents of the human heart. I think what one thinks often follows how one behaves and that the practice of ethical behavior can, over time, yield a moral character.
But I think there are limits, and I think we have now run into the limits like a brick wall. Democratic government, because it necessarily reflects the existing will of the people, is not much set up to be a leader of moral change. It is, though, inherently responsive to change that begins with the people. Indeed, the legal steps that led to progress in Civil Rights over the last 65 years were in the main forced on the government by the political pressure exerted by a moral movement.
The main thing for us to remember now, I believe, is that it was a moral movement led by the Church. It was not universally embraced by the Church, especially the white Church, but it was a movement of the Church nonetheless. When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the arc of the moral universe, he was speaking of the prophecy of the Old Testament and the new creation promised in Christ in the New.
The tragedy of Trayvon Martin's death has made plain to me what, in truth, was there to be seen for many years. What is needed is another moral movement in our society, and I believe it is a moral movement, though not the exclusive possession of the Church, that can only be effectively led by the Church.
This time the work is harder. The venue is not Oval Office, the legislature, or the courts, which are relatively easily known with established rules and where our predecessors have walked before us. Now the venue is the human heart, an almost inscrutable mystery, but the particular concern of the Church. It is what we do. It is slower, harder work, but it is also surer.
Only when it is accomplished can we be secure that progress is not endangered by judicial review of the Voting Rights Act. Only when it is accomplished will affirmative action be unnecessary.
Only when it is accomplished will black teenage boys be able to walk the streets at night in equal safety to their white teenage neighbors. This is hard work, but there is no one else to do it. And there is no one better at it than we. Indeed, it is God's gift to us, God's grace.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:17-20)
Law has taken us as far as we can go. Now conversion is up to us. And conversion is a matter of grace. The Church is to be its instrument.
It is up to us to recommit ourselves to building what King spoke of as the Beloved Community. The conversion of the world must begin with our own. And the first step in that, I am convinced, is some hard conversation using all the tools at our disposal. I am convinced of it because conversation and conversion are, at their roots, the same word. And I am convinced of it because conversation and conversion, if the Civil Rights Movement taught us anything, is where moral movements must begin. The only difference this time is that we have now moved from the realm of the law to the real of the Spirit