The struggle for greater racial justice continues - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
Home » Justice & Peace » The struggle for greater racial justice continues

Segregated water coolers in Oklahoma City (Photo by Russell Lee, via Library of Congress)

I was a teenager in the 1960s in Kentucky, when racial segregation was still a reality. It had lessened since World War II, but I remember “Whites Only” signs on water fountains. And in the busing era, in meetings in my first parish, I was physically sickened by “good Catholics” who spewed hatred and rejection of the black students at our school and who spread roofing nails in the driveway of the high school where I taught.

But at the same time I was encouraged by John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, celebrated the passage of the Civil Rights Act and saw children of different races learning and playing together. My family was a great influence, too. My father, a medic in World War II, treated black and white GIs who bled the same, and I remember his teaching us never to use the “N” word. My uncle, a navigator in B24s, told me how he lost any prejudice when he saw black fighter pilots flying protection as his wingmen.

Then in the seminary I made wonderful black friends, visited their homes, and tutored a young black boy in the slums of Baltimore. Studying in Baltimore made it possible for me to go to Howard University in Washington, DC to hear Martin Luther King speak. Then, back home in Louisville during a summer break, I served as a marshal for a march led by Dr. King. A year later, after his assassination, I tied a white rag onto the radio antenna of my VW van, and we delivered food and supplies to burned out neighborhoods of Baltimore that had erupted in violence upon his death.

Looking back, I see how the gospel, theological studies and the influence of family and friends helped develop my sense of justice. We still need that gospel and the sharing of our lives to bring about greater racial justice in our world today.

Today, March 21, is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It marks the day the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960.

Fr. Charlie Dittmeier
Father Charlie Dittmeier is the co-director of the Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is a member of Maryknoll Lay Missioners, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, and a Maryknoll Associate Priest.