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Create Your Future: How to Make Your Voice Heard from Human Rights to Civil Rights, From Anti-Apartheid to Anti-War

An excerpt from Healy's memoir -- 1962 was the year everything seemed possible.

The following is an excerpt from Create Your Future: How to Make Your Voice Heard from Human Rights to Civil Rights, From Anti-Apartheid to Anti-War (Snail Press, September, 2015), by Jack Healey.

1962 was an auspicious year to arrive in Washington. That year everything seemed possible. Pope John the 23rd had called for the second ecumenical council of the Vatican, seeking to “open the Church windows and let in fresh air” to align the Church with the progressive changes of the time. The seminary was brimming with pride because America had elected its first Catholic president, a prime subject of cafeteria chatter. If you wanted to make new friends, it was always a sure bet to bring up the Catholic president.

No one I knew was more excited by President Kennedy’s election than my mother. Though she was enthusiastic about his platform (he had run as “an FDR Democrat”), she was much more excited that he was Irish. A few days after Kennedy defeated Nixon, I received a letter from my mother stating, “The Irish will never be second class citizens in America again.” When I read it, I laughed out loud. My mother was an Irish American, and I was a dream of Irish descent.

The new president carried with him the hopes of many traditionally marginalized groups. He had campaigned on issues of civil rights and was embraced by anti-segregation activists, including singer Harry Belafonte, who referred to President Kennedy as the civil rights candidate. There were high hopes about positive changes to come. A certain progressive-nationalism was in the air, and why not? The past two decades had appeared very good for America. The country had helped defeat fascism, war spending had pulled millions of Americans out of poverty, and for the first time the country had an expansive middle class who lived in one-garage houses and dreamed of sending their kids to college. History was moving forward, and it seemed that there were two choices: to be on the side of progress or the losing side. I wanted to be part of this tide of change.

At Catholic University there was a large group of progressive priests and seminarians involved in the Civil Rights Movement. During the first week of school they held a meeting for all incoming students interested in getting more involved. My entire seminary class showed up, and we were immediately put to work advertising an upcoming talk by Reverend Walter Fauntroy, a civil rights minister who worked with Dr. King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). I spent hours that weekend hanging fliers on every available post on campus. After that I was hooked. The group spent a lot of its time on popular education, hosting speakers such as a pair of anti-war priests named the Berrigan brothers, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Rabbi Heschel, who had marched alongside Dr. King in Selma.

We brought a culture of activism to campus, hosting parties called hootenannies after-hours in the campus dining hall. Hootenannies were an important, but not often written about, part of civil rights culture. Groups of folk musicians traveled around the country with acoustic guitars, violins, snare drums, and a few bushels of hay (to be used as stage props). Hundreds would gather in the campus dining hall to watch the bands play songs akin to the folk music of Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill. Students would stomp their feet and holler along to the songs that always carried messages about civil rights and social justice. These events helped give me the feeling that I was part of a movement that was much bigger than me. I was eager, however, to take some more direct action.

My first action with the movement was the most iconic of my life. Titled simply “The March for Jobs and Freedom,” it showed the strength of our movement and built momentum for the passage of a proposed “Civil Rights Act.” The march was organized by a coalition of groups called the Big Six, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to build public pressure to pass civil rights legislation designed to end the Jim Crow laws still prevalent in the South. President Kennedy had helped to draft the legislation, but it had stalled in Congress. Dr. King, among others, decided to get people—lots of people, hundreds of thousands of people— to march on Washington in support of that legislation. My classmates and I did simple things to publicize the march: hang posters, campaign door-to-door, and hold discussions with seminarians and leaders of other faiths.

The poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” Dr. King’s voice was the clarion call of my generation. He lit the fire for human rights advocacy in me. 

On the morning of the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963, our group of Franciscans, dressed in black suits rather than our usual robes, began the three-mile trek to the national mall. We were about a mile away when we hit the tail end of the crowd. It was a deeply moving sight. There were thousands and thousands of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder, walking arm in arm, all together. Blacks, whites, men, women, children—friends, neighbors, and strangers—all pressing as close as possible to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As we walked by the White House, we wondered how the President would respond to the March.

As we headed to a better vantage point closer to the Lincoln Memorial, I saw a very young Jesse Jackson. He was about my age. Got to get going, Jack, I thought.

On the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Joan Baez was singing about peace, love, forgiveness, and overcoming. John Lewis, the youngest speaker of the day, said, “By the forces of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall send a desegregated South into a thousand pieces, put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say wake up, America, wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”

Next, Bob Dylan was strumming the guitar, telling us to take the hand of the person next to us. Then they all stepped off the stage, the sun was beating down, and the people passed around water and cigarettes. There was lots of good-natured jostling as we all moved closer to those white marble steps. And then Dr. King was there, about halfway up the stairs, standing in front of the Marines and next to John Lewis, raising his arms as he stepped in front of the microphone. He did not smile as he looked out at the thousands of us gathered there. The crowd fell silent. Then he began to speak, and his voice seemed to thunder from heaven itself.

Dr. King spoke to all of us and to each one of us. “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone,” he said. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

And then he told us about his dream, and it was as if the dream itself was present there, in front of us, almost within reach. We could believe that black children and white children could grow up to share our country. We shouted our agreement with Dr. King from the crowd and from all over the country. Thank God Almighty. Free at last.

I knew I had attended a moment of history, when the promise of hope had been firmly planted on American soil.

My years at Catholic University (1962-1966) were beyond any expectation. I felt lucky to be living in an exciting time. The country was in a good place during these years. We had John Kennedy as our president. We had Dr. King working on civil rights. We Catholics had John XXIII as Pope.

I was learning about the changes sweeping the country and my church and was beginning to participate in them, if only in a minor way. My classmates and I were no longer as isolated. We walked everywhere, since we had no money for buses. We tutored at Kelly Miller Middle School, visited patients at the Washington Hospital Center, went to courts to hear criminal trials, visited Congress, sat in on Supreme Court cases, and participated in debates on campus. I was slowly testing my wings.

But there remained a large gap between what we were saying and what we were doing, or more precisely, not doing. The frustration continued as constant background noise until Nov. 22, 1963. That day Walter Cronkite delivered the news that the president of the United States had been assassinated. He had died while riding in the back of a convertible in Dallas on a beautiful, sunny day. JFK was not supposed to die. He was the president that we had all been waiting for. He was the young, handsome Irish Catholic who we thought would change our country for the better. Our faith for the future had rested on him. Then Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One, Jackie Kennedy had a bloodstain on her skirt, and Caroline and John had no father. The future was uncertain.

The university was silent the night of the assassination. The cafeteria was desolate. The city itself was silent; we were all in shock. The assassination and the funeral were all that we could think about.

On the day of the funeral, the Superior got up at breakfast and instructed us, in no uncertain terms, not to attend the funeral. We were to stay within the walls of the monastery and pray. The entire monastery was devastated. Later, some of us took advantage of the lunch rush to slip out the back door. We were walking down North Capitol Street, joining the crowd of thousands and thousands of people in black, when someone wondered out loud what our punishment would be. “Are you out of your damn mind, worrying about that right now?” said Joe, a Canadian. “Haven’t you been paying attention? JFK is dead.”

The feeling of isolation and of existing in an alternate universe got worse after JFK’s death. It reminded me of the days during the Cuban missile crisis when every 60 seconds you heard a jet fly over Washington, D.C. Fright dominated the atmosphere. I thought that the country was falling apart, and all I knew to do was to get through the next few steps, get confirmed as a priest, and then try to be an active participant in change.

Following Kennedy’s assassination, the country refused to wait for civil rights legislation any longer. Activists mounted a vigil at the Lincoln Memorial 24 hours a day, every day, until the Civil Rights Bill was passed. I participated in the vigil, along with many of my fellow seminarians, and Protestant and Jewish faith leaders as well. We usually took the night shift since it was our only chance to get away.

Among the many people who joined us was Jim Carroll, the former Paulist and writer. He later referenced the vigil in a book he had written. We also had the dubious pleasure of the company of a crazy Nazi who would stop by to tell us about the Irish girls he hit on. I surprised even myself at how quickly I could explode. One morning in my second year of theological study, I was upset about something or nothing. I tossed my bowl of milk at Joe MacDonald at breakfast. He returned the honor and we were off, almost flipping the table over as we wrestled, upending the other monks’ places and spewing cereal and milk all over. Joe sat across the table from me for all those years. Maybe we were just tired of looking at each other. We grappled and fought while 40 other monks sat in stunned silence. Afterwards, Joe protected me to the Superior by saying he had provoked the fight by repeatedly kicking me, a lie that cemented our friendship. For a week after that, I ate my meals on my knees, in silence, on the hard stone floor of the dining room.

I was sent to see a psychiatrist. I thought it was nonsense, but it was required in order to move beyond the incident. I told the shrink that I didn’t know why I had reacted violently. I still don’t know why. But I remember his observation: “There is something wrong with your monastery.”

Those words gave me great relief. I wasn’t crazy after all. It was so refreshing to hear someone mirror my own thoughts. I loved the seminary. The Fathers understood my dyslexia and gave me a solid education. I learned to pray. But I was a social creature. I needed room. I was simply not built for being silent. My frustration stemmed from this internal conflict between love and honor for the church and my mother, and my own personality.

 

Jack Healey is the founder and director of Human Rights Action Center.

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