By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
May 23, 1954
If you believe—as I do—that mankind is now in the crucial stage of a race between morality and disaster, you will often be depressed at the trend of events. Too much that is happening is lowering the moral level and increasing the pace at which we seem to be careening towards catastrophe. At times, the scene takes on an aspect of nightmarish unreality. Can it be, you wonder, that people are willing to act in such utter disregard of what has come to be their situation? Do they know—have they ever really absorbed it?—the awesome nature of the problems they must solve if they are not to perish?
Do they know that these problems are not merely military? Do they realize that two-thirds of the earth’s population, none of it white-skinned, is on the march, determined to put an end to hunger and destitution, oppression and misery? Or are they taken in by the propaganda that tells them that all this is manufactured in Moscow? That, of course, is what they are invited to believe: that the Asians and the Africans—and perhaps some of the South Americans—have been so poisoned by Communist propaganda that they have come to think that famines can be ended, that epidemics can be controlled, that parasitic oppressions can be overthrown, and that human life, even in Asia and Africa, can have dignity.
What our people have been blind to, here in America, is that it is our own success—our success in raising the standard of life of ordinary people—that is the incitement everywhere in the world to seek a similar advancement. It is likewise our own Revolution—not the Communist one—that has given the backward peoples a basis to go upon. What is necessary; so far as Americans are concerned, is that the moral principles upon which their won nation was founded shall be applied—and boldly—to the problems of a world of ferment and transition. It is the only way, tolerable to Americans, by which the problems of mankind can be brought towards solution.
Our great principle, for instance, that all men are endowed with equal natural rights holds more promise for world security than any other principle ever enunciated. It is the only possible basis for a world community of free people. There is no other foundation—none whatever—for a peaceful world society that includes all races. And quite obviously, a world society, whether peaceful or otherwise, must include all races. But unless it is to be a society ruled by tyranny, and therefore foredoomed to the dissensions which, in the presence of the modern weapons, must end up in disaster, it must be a free society of equal peoples.
Nothing is more short-sighted than to think of the race problem as a local problem, or a problem of certain states in the American South, or even as an American national problem: it is an all-inclusive problem of the modern age. We have been slow—dangerously slow—in seeing the problem in its true dimensions. But others have seen it. Hitler, for instance, saw it, and proposed to deal with it with brutal cynicism. There shall be, he said, a master-race, the Germans; at the next highest level will come the other white races under German guidance and dominion, the lower levels will be composed of the non-white races, enslaved for the advantage of those at the top. The Japanese at one time had a similar plan for the Orient. The Communists, although they promise an eventual equality, would enslave the entire world under a privileged bureaucracy—and it would be foolish not to see that this bureaucracy would harden into a permanent class of overlords, though, of course, it might be interracial.
Now, let us state a very simple fact—so simple that it seems odd that there should be any need to state it. The race problem does not arise because of agitators or even because of idealists who are not agitators; that race problem arises because mankind is composed of a number of different races. The primitive reaction to this fact is one of hostility. Whatever is different is potentially dangerous it is necessary to be defensive against it. Sometime, this has meant the annihilation of people of one race by people of another. Sometimes, it has meant enslavement. But always, as any two races have remained in contact, there has been increasing comprehension of each other; and always they have mingled. Neverthe less, down to now the primitive reaction has never been subdued—not entirely—by a civilized recognition of realities. The fact of the oneness of humanity, although religion has extolled it, has been acknowledged without being observed. High morality, like true rationality, has been available but has not been used. And race attitudes have remained very largely primitive.
At the time, however, that the United States was founded, it was well understood, at least by some among the founders, that the human equality they were adopting as a principle should be applied universally, and therefore without racial reservations. Jefferson and John Adams both wanted an immediate end of Negro Slavery. Unfortunately, their wish did not prevail. But the principles was declared, and the declaration was unequivocal.
There are those who say that if this is what was intended, it was intended only by the few. The conscience of the many did not require it. This is a plausible objection—if we do not stop to notice what would need to have been the alternatives. First, could the Declaration of Independence have avoided a statement on the equality of human rights? The answer is that it could not: some such statement was a pollitical necessity. There were many who did not like it but the temper of the times meant that it had to go in. It is true that Jefferson had his difficulties; the opposition was formidable. Yet, he represented—and knew that he represented—the new spirit of the age. He spoke for an authentic revolution. Very well, then, the clause had to go in. The next question is, why was it not phrased: “All white men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”?
The answer is obvious: it would have destroyed the entire principle of natural rights which was being asserted. Later, of course, a case was made out, not only in legislatures but from pulpits, that the rights of white men and the rights of Negroes were not the same. But this could not have been done, I think, at the time of the Revolution. You cannot found a nation upon a labored argument. It has to be—as it was—something that can be called self-evident. And to the American Revolutionaries the equal rights of all—as natural rights—did seem self-evident.
But it had to be all. The whole revolutionary impulse required it. The conscience of the time required it. The equal rights of some men while excluding others could never have been said to be endowed by man’s Creator. And they would not have been self-evident.
So the declaration was unreserved and unequivocal. But it was in conflict with the man-made facts. White Americans were ceaselessly aware of the conflict; gradually, the outer world became aware of it, too. The American Declaration caused a surge of hope wherever it became known, but the American performance brought resentment and dismay. Within the United States, little by little, the principle nevertheless wrote itself into the Constitution—but not without an agonizing struggle. In the conscience of the world outside==a world drawing smaller and nearer—this struggle had continuing impact.
It was noticed how hard we labored to retain the principle and yet avoid its implications. After all, the principle itself we could not abandon: it was the basis of American democracy. So we enunciated such doctrines as “separate but equal,” refusing to see that when you put your fellow-man in a category apart, you are denying that he is your equal. You are saying to him, “I will give you something as good as I am keeping for myself, if only you will stay away from me; for although I know I have a duty to you, you are offensive to me.” That—in simple, honest words, words which it was important never to speak—was what was meant by “separate but equal.”
Last week, the Supreme Court, to its everlasting honor, set us free from this hypocrisy. In a decision as historic as any ever rendered, it gave unqualified effect to the most basic of our founding principles. It correctly interpreted the meaning of the American Revolution. It spoke for the conscience of the Founding Fathers: as it did also for the conscience of Americans from then till now. It was the right decision, restoring to us something of our self-esteem.
And it was also constructive—nothing has been more so—in our relations with the world outside. At a time when our prestige has been declining and other nations have doubtful of our leadership, this decision reaffirms American morality. We are willing to be true to our principles.
It is not the case, of course, that the decision has been universally popular. Right decisions seldom are. But it is remarkable—and reassuring—to see the extent to which those who do not like the decision nevertheless acknowledge it as the law of the land and are prepared to abide by it.
All this is good. Here is something that is not depressing, but points towards hope and gives us courage.
A decision, however, no matter how enlightened, is that and nothing more until we have begun to carry it out. And in carrying it out, everything depends upon what is in the hearts of the people. Yes, and in their minds as well. We must think clearly if we are to act wisely. And if we do, we shall see, however reluctantly, that although we can make great gains in meeting the problems of race relationship, we are not likely within a short time to bring them to complete solution. Indeed, as to this we should understand that the full solution of race problems will only come when the races are indistinguishable. In short, as long as there are races there will be race problems. In the same way that as long as there are young and old there will be problems between the generations, and as long as there are men and women there will be problems between the sexes. This, I was at pains to point out in a sermon I preached from this pulpit in January, 1946, at a time when you felt much more lonely if you happened to believe as I did and felt the need to speak out about it. I said then, and I repeat now, that it is important to reckon with realities, one of which is that wherever there are differences there are problems. But the problems can be lessened. We can become more mature in dealing wisely with them. We can grow in character and in breadth of humanity as understanding deepens and we increasingly act upon it.
Our individual attitudes are vital. In the changes to be brought about, here in the District of Columbia as much as anywhere, the part that each of us will play will be a part of what is good or bad in the total situation. And here we have to make—each of us, as individuals, I mean—a personal decision. I was thinking of this requirement near the end of last week when I chanced to take up from my desk a printed copy of an address by Dr. Murray D. Lincoln, the President of CARE, which has done so much for overseas relief, much of it through individuals. We are all of us, says Dr. Lincoln, a part of the world crisis, and we all have responsibility. And then he says this: “We must answer the question, ‘Am I a part of the problem or part of the solution?’”
I can think of no better way of putting what must be for each of us an individual decision. Certainly, that is the question to be answered first. “Am I part of the problem?” I may deplore the problem but do my views, my attitude, the things I say, the tensions I allow myself to feel, yes—even my prejudices—do these make me part of the problem: the problem that other people are working hard to solve? If they do, must I not ask myself whether I am not being foolish and unworthy? Since the problem is here and attempts must be made to meet it, of what use is my attitude, my opposition, my refractoriness? And is it something that can give my self-respect? Am I part of the problem?
It is a very searching question, isn’t it? The kind that it is not easy to forget. And I hope that you will not forget it; I hope it will keep recurring to you over and over again. I hope it will worry you, and although I don’t like to see people suffer, I hope it will upset you if necessary until you do something that puts you on the right side. “Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?
To be part of the solution, you must be willing to do all you can to help. In this area, in the period immediately before us, this will be, not something vague and general, but definite, palpable things.
I said earlier that we are in a race between morality and disaster. You must not think of this as rhetoric. It is literally true. Only as the moral level rises-the level of justice and benevolence, truth snd righteousness—can we be the people who will have the vision, the purpose and the resolution to survive. Yes, and only as we reach this level can we come towards national unity. You cannot unite a nation upon the basis of mistrust and bitterness, suspicion and prejudice. A low moral level means dissension and disunity, which in turn, mean catastrophe. Moreover, at a low moral level, we shall not do what is needed in the world, and the situation will go against us.
That is what I mean by a race between morality and disaster. And we do, each of us have something to do with whether this race is won or lost. I think we have something to do with it when we define our attitude with it when we speak and we act.
That, after all, is the thing that is decisive. I have always been impressed by the story of the young man who came to Jesus to have a discussion—academic, he hoped—of the vexed question as to who was his neighbor. It was a question much canvassed at the time, and one to which was given a great variety of theoretical answers. “I know I should love my neighbor as myself,” said the young man, “but my trouble is one of definition: who is my neighbor?”
And you will remember that Jesus told him the story of the Good Samaritan, and then made him decide which of the three, the priest, the levite, or the despised Samaritan was a true neighbor to the man who had been robbed, and lay by the side of the road. The young man, no matter how he felt about this story, seems to have made a prompt decision. The Samaritan, he said, was quite clearly the good neighbor. And then Jesus, for whom theory had only limited charm, greatly surprised the young man. “Go,” said Jesus, “and do though likewise.”
And the command still remains. As it always will until we acknowledge from our hearts that there is only one race—the human race—and that the neighbors of each of us are all of us, everywhere throughout the world.