“The central moral problem of our republic”

“Today again the problem of racial wrongs and racial hatreds is the central moral problem of our republic.”
Sargent Shriver | Chicago, IL | January 15, 1963

Our Quote of the Week marks the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, a violent chapter in civil rights history whose repercussions continue to haunt us.

In January 1963, eight months before the bombing, a group of interfaith leaders from around the country, including Sargent Shriver and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gathered in Chicago for the National Conference on Religion and Race. It was during this conference that Sargent Shriver spoke these words. In his speech, Shriver refers to laws and government as “coarse and inefficient instruments for remolding social institutions or illuminating the dark places of the human heart.” And he calls on “those institutions whose task it is to teach moral values” to take an active role in battling discrimination and hatred.

As was the case with Dr. King, Shriver’s spiritual faith fueled him in his quest to tackle the injustices he witnessed around him. True, he was not a typical spiritual leader, nor a specialist when it came to the subject of race. “I am not a theologian. I am not an ‘expert’ in race relations,” Shriver admits to his audience. He adds: “My only credentials for speaking to you are my experience here in Chicago with the Interracial Council, my work with the Peace Corps, and a layman’s strong interest in making faith personally meaningful in a disturbing world.”

Even as a lay person, Shriver challenged the spiritual leaders at the conference. In his words we hear an urgent call, that they should take on the responsibility of eliminating discrimination, injustice, inequity, and all of the ugly ways in which the scourge of racism manifests itself in society. “As a layman, for example, I wonder why I can go to church 52 times a year and not hear one sermon on the practical problems of race relations,” Shriver criticizes. After all, if “racial wrongs and racial hatreds” are, indeed, “the central moral problem of our republic”, then it stands to reason that our spiritual leaders must play an active role in ensuring that the scourge of racism be eliminated.

In the final analysis, Shriver makes the case that we must reflect on and discuss the topic of racism in our sacred spaces on a regular basis: in our churches and in our temples, and, we would add, in our classrooms, at our dinner tables, and in all settings where we practice our spirituality. The effects of racism invade every facet of people’s lives, tearing at our social fabric and contributing to the dehumanization of people of color, and particularly Black Americans. And there is no public space that is safe from the “central moral problem” of racism--and from the violence that it can provoke. It stands to reason, therefore, that we must encourage conversations that fuel us to effect change and motivate us to create a more just and peaceful society.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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