By Frank Wessling
On the evening of this day 50 years ago, Nov. 21, 1963, President John Kennedy quoted from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 29, verse 18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Kennedy was speaking at a dinner in Houston, Texas. The next day, Nov. 22, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
A certain vision was rising in this country during the Kennedy presidency, although that wasn’t all due to the man in the White House. The Kennedys, both the president and his wife, Jackie, brought a new glamour and emotional excitement into national affairs, but a more enduring source of excitement was the growing unrest in the South as black people pushed against a racist, segregationist status quo. A young black minister named Martin Luther King Jr., was rising to prominence as an eloquent religious and nonviolent voice of this new movement.
Here was a substantive vision deeply affecting “the people.” The movement acquired the name Civil Rights in order to keep it within secular, legal boundaries. But what the black people of this country really did in that uprising of the 1950s and ’60s was to demand that the nation live up to a vision of fundamental human rights. In King’s words, he had to believe that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Whether President Kennedy had this in mind that evening in Houston, we don’t know. He had been a significant help, but a follower rather than a leader in the resistance to established racism.
In the assassination’s wake, the new president, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, was able to wrangle the 1963 civil rights bill proposed by Kennedy past his fellow southern Democrats in Congress and into law the following year. In 1965 Johnson also signed a voting rights bill into law, ensuring federal protection for the right to vote everywhere in the country.
All of that did not mean a final victory over racist practices, but a necessary adjustment in our vision of this society was made. Today, a work of vision is again needed, this time to regain a national sense of unity and solidarity across divisions of wealth and politics. The Catholic Church has that vision in our understanding of social justice and the common good.
We believe the test of a society’s health is found in how its poor and vulnerable are treated. Are they an afterthought, or do we focus on bringing them, especially them, in and up? Do we listen to them or only to the rich and powerful? Are we a comm-unity or merely a collection of self-interests with an eye for tax law loopholes? Are we satisfied with 11 million people unemployed?
The evidence is clear that we’ve been going in the wrong direction lately, producing greater economic inequality than existed even in the worst excesses of 1920s capitalism. Our vision again seems focused too much on me and mine rather than a fair sharing of everything, both burdens and benefits. The Roaring Twenties led to a terrible economic Depression. Where are we headed today?
If more Catholics become familiar with the Church’s teaching on social justice, if we take seriously the call of Pope Francis to be a Church for the poor, we would lead the nation to refocus beyond our differences and onto the common good. We urgently need that small “c” catholic vision: broad, long, comprehensive, universal. It’s the only way to ensure that, rather than perish, we flourish as a blessed people.