SNCC: The New Abolitionists
My Face Is Black
Who Speaks for the South
The final test of our political morality is not our moral posture but our political program and our readiness to discuss and solve political problems. The moral and religious rhetoric of many recent books on the race crisis is not a serious contribution to the critical problem the civil rights movement faces in establishing itself on firm political ground. This is a problem the Negro leadership has failed to resolve. The white liberal, whose major contribution could have been to give the Negroes a political direction, and the white radical whose contribution could have been a heightened political consciousness have been of little help. Delighting in their own moral regeneration through participation in the movement they have virtually betrayed that movement through a failure to develop an adequate program.
Thomas Merton, in “Letters to a White Liberal,” which appears in his book, The Seeds of Destruction, expresses the radical’s delight in his own commitment, without offering either the Negro or the white liberal a political position of any kind. The theme of Seeds of Destruction is that man moves daily closer to Christ and the Christlike life. Whether we are in or outside the church, we are, he believes, subject to the beneficent effect of Christ’s presence working toward our inevitable salvation. Pope John’s Pacem in Terris is, to him a noble document which expresses the Franciscan ideal of peace and rejects the Augustinian concept of the just war. He engages in a good deal of philosophical speculation about Pacem in Terris but never comes to terms with the baffling problems of world politics that must be solved if the objectives of this document are to be fulfilled.
This faith in the inevitable emergence of the good society dedicated to true brotherhood leads Merton into a strange and politically irresponsible position on the civil rights movement. According to him, the Negro embodies in his struggle for equality the ideal of Christian love and the aims of Christ, and he should therefore be supported even at the cost of great personal sacrifice. Indeed, Mr. Merton argues that sacrifice will be necessary because the material interests of white liberals and Negroes are in conflict. The Negro struggle should be supported for the sake of conscience.
But altruism is a risky base on which to form a political alliance. Mr. Merton seems reduced to it because he is unable to envisage a program that will unite the civil rights movement with any other section of the population in an alliance based on self-interest. He writes to James Baldwin that he finds it unfortunate that he is not a Negro himself. To be sure, if the Negro has been singled out by History to fulfill Christ’s promise, then it is unfortunate that History has passed by those of us who are white. The best we can hope for is to live in the reflected glow of the Negro’s historic mission, and support it at great personal cost, lest our …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.