A Moral Ecology
Bridging todays issues with our rich heritage
BySamuel C. Porter
In 1961, I was eight years old living in Washington, D.C., as a middle class white boy sheltered from much of the worlds harshness.
Although often forces of good, I still find baffling how major religious and secular institutions, including the press and government, were complicit in the racism and brutality of only a half-century ago. Such memories break in from our past and shine a harsh light on the present. They threaten our complacency; but they are, above all, the things we have to remember.
The documentary Freedom Riders recently aired on PBS and was shown at a UO symposium called “Stand Up for Freedom!” It presents a vivid picture of the violence of state and local laws in effect from 1876 to 1965 in places like Alabama and Mississippi. The courage of the freedom riders helped to break Jim Crows iron grip.
Still, in Portland we now have de facto segregation by class and race. Using recent U.S. Census data, The Oregonian (May 1) shows Portland is not only the whitest major city in the U.S.; it is getting even whiter as gentrification pushes blacks into the suburbs. Eugene is, I suspect, even whiter.
Indeed, in Springfield we have City Councilor Dave Ralston bashing “illegal” Latinos (Register-Guard, April 23) evoking memories of the hatred depicted in the Freedom Riders documentary. Like Ralstons rants, the accusation that the freedom riders deliberately provoked the violence is an exasperating, jaw-dropping evasion of responsibility.
My father, Charles O. Porter, served as the U.S. representative from Oregons Fourth District from 1957 to 1961. In 1960, he, New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell and others picketed Glen Echo, an amusement park near Washington, D.C.
Yet, a The Register-Guard editorial (Aug. 21, 1960) criticized my father for picketing because, the editorial claimed, “many of his constituents would feel better if he didnt try to get in on every act.” For this reason “Mr. Porters friends, even more than his detractors, have cause to say in anguish, •Charlie, why do you do it?”
In a letter to the editor, my mother, Priscilla Porter, replied (Aug. 23):
The time has long since passed when all men in positions of leadership in this country should have stood and been counted on this subject. If standing in a picket line or participating in a sit-down strike will in some small measure help to bring the facts of this struggle to you and others far from the scene, then it is to be commended, not derided Ä
Because of an attitude such as yours, the Negroes have yet a long road to travel in order to gain meaningful citizenship in this country.
Is it not the duty of every citizen ã be he congressman or not ã to do his part in advancing every cause that has true democracy and human justice on its side?
My dad lost the 1960 election by 2 percentage points to his Republican opponent, Edwin R. Durno, M.D., of Medford.
As the Freedom Riders documentary clearly shows, there was vigorous disagreement within the civil rights movement. Yet, today, instead of vigorous disagreement we have radical individualism. It is an individualism that prevents blacks, women, labor activists, homosexuals, Latinos, Jews, Native Americans, environmentalists, and other progressive groups from coming together to form a coherent social movement.
What brought and held the civil rights movement together long enough to bring about dramatic social change? Martin Luther King Jr. was embedded in a particular tradition. There would not have been a civil rights movement were it not for the theological, moral and institutional resources of the Black Church.
But what held the civil rights movement together had much to do with Kings ability to draw on American civic and religious traditions in a way that spoke to a broad spectrum of citizens across many lines of social difference.
Today, we need to identify, cultivate and articulate such moral sources in a way that speaks to our present realities. The serious problems we face ã economic, social, political, environmental, and institutional ã require a coherent, broad social movement that crosses sex, class, race and religion.
The extraordinary courage of the freedom riders was based on common biblical and civic languages, moral sources and institutions ã rooted in American history.
King and the freedom riders, while accomplishing a lot, never fully succeeded in getting to the Promised Land. But they left us an unquenched heritage of criticism ã a rich legacy we cannot ignore or take for granted if we are to sustain the moral ecology of a free, democratic republic.
Samuel C. Porter, Ph.D., is a courtesy research associate in the UOs Department of Sociology.