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Waging a Private Civil War for Civil Rights

by charles e. walker jr. '78

Last weekend I remembered painfully the night that Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. At the time I was a professor at Boston College Law School. As I was coming out of my office to walk home, four black students from the South stopped me in the corridor and screamed, ‘They killed him!’ That night I sat down and talked with those young men for two hours. Since that night I have tried to keep in touch and follow the progress of those four young men. Six months ago, I wept with pride and emotion when one of those students called to tell me that he had been nominated as a federal judge.— From the 1995 keynote address by Father Robert F. Drinan at the University of San Francisco Law Review Civil Rights Symposium


There is a photograph that accompanied Boston College’s obituary of Father Robert Drinan (see the picture on Page 3 of this issue) that is the perfect metaphor of his righteous indignation towards racial injustice and civil rights violations in this country. With the nation's Capitol in the background seemingly resting on his shoulders, Father Drinan stands in his black suit and signature clerical collar, arms folded, furrowed brow and eyes cast towards the future. He appears to be Congress’ cornerstone and justice’s rock.


Among his many attributes, Father Drinan was a Jesuit priest first and a civil and human rights activist second. To those of us standing closest to the flames of racism, he was, in the words of Georgetown Law Center’s Everette Bellamy, a “gift from God,” someone with “a vision to eradicate all racial injustices” in America and a mission to fulfill it.


What was the genesis of Father Drinan's commitment to civil rights? “Civil and human rights were at the core of his existence,” suggests Ladislas M. Orsy, SJ, a colleague of Drinan’s at Georgetown Law Center for many years. “It was part of his being. You never questioned it. It was always there….”


Father Drinan was a priest with a mobile pulpit. Whether he was addressing the Boston School Committee, Massachusetts Legislature, or US Congress; the House Judiciary Committee, boardrooms of multinational corporations, or public schoolrooms; parent-teacher associations of South Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, the American Bar Association, or the oval offices of Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, the message from the self-proclaimed “mad monk” on civil rights was clear and unambiguous: racial justice and equality of opportunity in every quadrant of society had to happen with their “direct action” and it had to happen now. As he said in a speech to the Catholic Interracial Council of Milwaukee in 1964, “The white man in America will forget about the plight of the Negro…unless he is forced to remember! Direct action therefore cannot cease. Its necessity should shame the white man but its indispensability should never be forgotten by Negro groups."


Father Drinan's perceived role was not to propose more civil rights legislation, but rather, in the same vein as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi, to breathe the morality of civil rights into our laws and the blood of its mandate into the veins of American culture.


On November 5, 1960, four years into his term as BC Law School dean, he delivered a sermon called “Human Rights in the Sixties” in which he posed a question to the ancient Athenian jurist, Solon, as to “how justice could be secured.” According to Father Drinan, Solon replied that “justice is assured ‘if those who are not injured feel as indignant as those who are.’”


Father Drinan, injured or not, shared and indeed embraced this indignation towards racial intolerance and injustice. He used Solon’s quote often during the next four and a half decades in speeches, sermons, lectures, and scholarly articles to punctuate his convictions about combating discrimination in employment, housing, and education as well as institutional racism. It was his prayer and his homily to support his private civil war for civil rights.


In a prophetic 1964 article, “Racial Balance in the Schools,” Father Drinan wrote: “The most explosive civil rights struggle in Northern cities during the next ten years will have to do with racially imbalanced schools or de facto segregation in education.” Ten years later, sixty-eight Boston public schools were deemed racially imbalanced in violation of the state’s 1965 Racial Imbalance Act. Judge W. Arthur Garrity after finding in Morgan v. Hennigan that “school authorities had knowingly carried out a systemic program of segregation affecting all the city’s students, teachers, and school facilities and had intentionally brought about or maintained a dual system,” ordered busing to desegregate Boston’s schools.


In a 1965 sermon to a guild of Catholic lawyers in Jamaica, New York, Father Drinan made a special appeal to Catholic members of the legal profession to redress racial segregation of public schools not as a legal responsibility but as a moral duty.


Catholic lawyers “more than any other group have the responsibility of enlightening and inspiring the poorly informed conscience of many Northern urban Catholics regarding the inherent equality of de facto segregated schools,” Father Drinan said. He also placed Catholic jurists in his cross hairs. “The tragic problems [and] tragic plight [of maintaining a racially imbalanced school system] central to interracial justice, poses dilemmas which Catholic jurists cannot evade or professionally avoid,” he added. “If anyone and especially a Catholic jurist refuses to accept the fact of the basic inequality of racially imbalanced schools, he is either very ill informed or prejudiced to the point where his bias, unconsciously, or otherwise, clouds and changes his judgment.”


In the address Father Drinan further appealed to Catholics of all walks to examine their consciences. “The position of Catholics in Northern cities with regard to integrated education may be sociologically understandable but it is theologically scandalous because it betrays an immoral indifference towards one of the greatest injustices of this generation,” he said.


As powerful as his words were, Father Drinan was also an apostle of “direct action,” the embodiment of the sacred scripture and admonition from the Epistle of James that “faith without works is dead.”


As dean, Father Drinan transformed Boston College Law School into his new pulpit, making it a nationally ranked law school with a reputation for excellence in legal training, a place dedicated to social justice and with a student body that reflected a society it would serve. Consistent with this self-imposed mandate, Father Drinan visited southern states, the seeds of the old confederacy, the bastions of racial discord and disenfranchisement, and recruited and awarded full scholarships to top students at historic black colleges to attend BC Law. As a result, in 1966 alone, the five African-Americans who entered were equal to the total number of blacks who had attended in the four prior decades.


The Hon. Benjamin Jones ’69, chief judge of the Fourth Judicial District of Louisiana, was one of those recruits. “I came from a family of fourteen kids,” Jones said in a recent interview. “Neither of my parents had educations that went beyond the fourth grade. My father was a sharecropper and a store stock clerk. The cost of tuition, even in 1966, was more than my family’s entire income…. I can tell you that I would not be here, as a lawyer and a judge, were it not for Father Drinan.”


Another of Father Drinan’s students, Okla Jones II ’71,  called him twenty years after graduating to share the news that he had been nominated by President Bill Clinton to the federal bench of the Eastern District of Louisiana. Upon hearing this news, Father Drinan recounted that he sat on his bed “and wept with pride.”


Father Drinan remained committed to civil rights for the remainder of his life. He may have been a cornerstone of Congress, but with each graduating law school class at both BC Law and Georgetown, he remains the rock of justice we break ourselves against. And his legacy is the knowledge that true freedom, equality, and justice can never be achieved, much less assured, until “those of us who are not injured feel as indignant as those who are.”