Reflections on the Movement for Black Lives (BLM)

Resources from the Subcommittee on African American Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

An Introduction by Most Reverend Jeffrey Haines

The resources which follow are a series of four articles on the expression “Black Lives Matter” provided by the Subcommittee on African American Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. These articles do not claim to be a definitive statement on this matter. They are posted in the hope of providing background information which might help clarify what sometimes can be a controversial topic and serve as a stepping stone toward further reflection and dialogue on the important matter of racial justice.

We extend an invitation to read all four articles, because each individual author approaches “Black Lives Matter” from different perspectives and the result is instructive and illuminating.

The article by Andrea Marissa Auguster seeks to clarify that the statement “Black Lives Matter” is not antithetical to the belief that all lives have dignity. It explains how “Black Lives Matter” is a critical step necessary to achieve the fulfillment of promoting the sacredness of all people.

The article by Father Anthony Bozeman SSJ offers historical background on the Civil Rights Movement rooted in the stories of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, et al. This is grounded as well in theological reflection including the social justice teaching of Pope Paul VI. The article includes a segment which removes some of the controversy regarding the relationship of “Black Lives Matter” and law enforcement – emphasizing the difference between “good policing” versus “criminal activity under the shield of a badge.”

The article by Mr. Ashley Morris provides the personal and ministerial reflection of a young man who is employed by the Church. He exposes the lack of consolation on every turn. Where is the Church when young people feel the terror of unwarranted violence against people like them?

The article by the Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry helps distinguish the difference between “Black Lives Matter” as a movement and spirit (and even a slogan) rather than an endorsement of an organization with a manifesto not in compliance with Catholic Teaching and values. He also provides insights about the “messiness” which historically has accompanied previous movements, noting that movements of such size often have to struggle with a variety of groups who try to link themselves to the cause. The analogy of political party affiliation also helps illustrate how supporting a cause does not necessarily mean endorsing all of its elements.

A Reflection by Andrea Marissa Auguster

The Black Lives Matter is a movement that has emerged out of recent racially charged tragedies, where black men and women have suffered unjustly death and injury at the hands of the white majority. The killing of black sons and daughters with no justice by the American court system has become normalized. The civil unrest that inevitably follows mirrors some of the same catastrophic protests that our elders witnessed and experienced during the Civil Rights Movement.

In November 2015, the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, LA hosted the Black Lives Matter Symposium. This two-day event brought close to (if not over) 1000 guests and included a live stream of the events and workshops to an online audience. Workshops and panel discussions addressed topics like, the effects of mass incarceration on the black families and understanding white privilege. A keynote presentation from Father Bryan Massingale, urged the Church to see the Black Lives Matter movement as a movement that unites parishioners, rather than as one that separates them. He emphasized that embracing Black Lives Matter does not insinuate or assert that Asian, Latino or White lives are less important; But that Black Lives Matter has surfaced out of the gross negligence, disdain and lack of value for the black body. The movement has risen to express to society that black life has relevance and value just as the bodies of our majority counterparts have relevance and value.

1 Corinthians tells us that each of one us – whether we be Black, White, Asian, Native-American or Latino represent the Body of Christ; and that if one part suffers, every part suffers with it. Black lives are suffering, but it does not seem as though the Church has collectively acknowledged and concentrated their efforts on addressing and working to resolve racial disparities. But this is indeed a moral and social justice issue that desperately needs the Church’s attention and guidance. Ignoring or placating the Black Lives Matter movement will not force massive injustices to go away or die down. The Church has a responsibility to act on the behalf of their Black congregation. We tithe to our parishes, we pledge funds to our Dioceses and we serve our parish communities. Yet we do not have the church’s attention on this matter.  What kind of message does this send to Black Catholic? It sends the message that we have no right to expect reinforcement from our Church.

Black Lives Matter is a movement that literally means all lives matter.  One life is not more important than the other, but we cannot sit idly by and allow for injustice to continue plaguing our people. Too many black sons, black daughters, black wives, black mothers, black husbands and black fathers have been lost to the infected hands of bigotry, with no end to these atrocities in sight. Supporting the Black Lives Matter does not denote that other causes are of less importance. The Black Lives Matter movement affirms that we need our cries for justice answered also.  

A Reflection by Father Anthony Bozeman

Violent gangs, communists, Marxists, rabbel rousers, troublemakers, looters, and terrorists are some of the names used to describe the non-violent Civil Rights movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It sounds very familiar to the language that is used to describe the current Black Lives Matter movement. It is an unfortunate trick of the enemy to distort, denigrate, and devalue a person or a group when you are in authority or power and are being challenged about a moral imperative. Black Lives Matter is vilified by some and praised by many who have been marginalized and do not have a voice and those who are now “woke,” because of their activism.

Black Lives Matter was born out of the desire to organize people after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012.  Young Trayvon was a 17 year old boy murdered by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. A “neighborhood watchman”, Zimmerman saw Trayvon walking down the street and called a police dispatcher because he felt that the teenager didn’t belong in the neighborhood. The dispatcher told Zimmerman to stay in his vehicle. He disobeyed, accosted the teenager and killed him. Because of an immoral law, the adult, the agitator, and aggressor was found innocent. This horrendous incident was just a manifestation of Systemic Racism. Any white person who kills a Black soul can say that they were “afraid” and they will be exonerated from any type of adjudication. Black Lives Matter began to be loosely formed in the wake of that tragedy. Patrisse Cullors , Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza are the original founders of the movement that is now a global international clarion call for justice and real equality. It began with a hashtag # moment after Trayvon’s death.  From 2014-2016 BLM became a national movement protesting the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner. Black Lives Matter consists of decentralized local organizations with over 30 chapters around the country by 2016. Now there are many more groups in the United States and around the world.

People from all walks of life form this coalition that until recently were mostly people of African descent. The frustration of systemic institutionalized racism was extinguishing their opportunities and futures. They took to the streets demanding change. The watershed moment for this clarion call began long before deaths of Eric Garner or Michael Brown. Many say that it began with the lynching of Emmett Till.

Emmitt Till was the 14 year old boy that was murdered by two white men in 1955. Most Americans know of his story. While visiting his Great Uncle in Money, Mississippi, young Emmitt was murdered. Two half-brothers came to the uncle’s home and abducted young Emmitt tortured and killed him, because a white woman said that he tried to make advances toward her.  The modern day protest began with the outrage of the murder of that teenager. This ongoing outrage would lead to the beginning of the modern Civil Rights movement.

The Civil Rights Movement universally recognized as the catalyst for the significant social and political change of the Twentieth Century really was a newer iteration of the African-American fight for true equality that began after the Civil War. Reconstruction saw great strides in the freedom of the newly emancipated slave. The advances made during that time period led to the rise of white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, police sponsored race riots, and Jim Crow laws. Early in the rise of the movement those who wanted to maintain the status quo, tried to negatively derail the movement. Many now say that those who tried to destroy it were Racists and unpatriotic. Supporters of Black Lives Matter are called the same.

Our Catholic Church has many great social justice teachings and a moral obligation that call us to defend ALL life from beginning to natural end. Pope Paul IV’s encyclical, Populorum Progressio” (The Progress of Peoples) is a seminal teaching that codifies the Church’s stand for the elevation of God’s creation in the realm of true liberty and equality. Recognizing that we fall short, because we do not live up to our name (Christian) and our privilege to be a part of this awesome Body with Jesus the Christ as our Head, God gives an opportunity for evolution. We are called not to vilify Black Lives Matter, but to assist it so that we can truly demonstrate by our witness that “All Lives Matter.” Remember, if one of us is hurting then all of us are hurting. Many will try to distract from the issue that causes the formation of groups like Black Lives Matter, the sometimes insidious, but always prevalent factors that affect  the sin of Racism. Innocent people were not ultimately murdered by those who took an oath to “protect and serve”, but all too often “harass and harm” in the Black, Brown, and Native American communities. Everyone including members of Black Lives Matter support good policing, just not criminal activity under the shield of a badge. Yes, Black on Black crime is an issue that we must address. Unfortunately, there is more” white on white” crime even by percentages that also must be stopped. Sin is an equal opportunity employer.  We are a pluralistic society with multi-faceted issues. One issue that we must eradicate quickly is police brutality and excessive force, which has a 400 year history. This system continues because of the sin of Racism. Black Lives Matter attempts to address it by using a tradition as old as America herself, peaceful protest.  Political leadership tries to divide and distract from the societal ills that keeps us from living up to our country’s lofty ideals. Our Catholic Faith cannot subscribe, promulgate, or be ambivalent to these sins against our sisters and brothers that Black Lives Matter is trying to address. Unfortunately, in every moral issue, you will find those who will justify their hate and evil deeds in horrendous inhumane activities. Just look throughout human history in our Church.

Instead of denigrating, deriding, and denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement, we “good” Catholics must realize that supporters of Black Lives Matter are a part of us. Some members of the movement share our religious affiliation. Also, Black Lives Matter attempts to help powerless and marginalized citizens. Those that the Gospel says are special to Christ. Ultimately, Black Lives Matter and all humanity are created by the same God. Our Triune God calls us to be one in Him and each another!

May God bless the good work of Black Lives Matter.  May we join them to bring eradication to the sin of Racism and elevation to the fact of our universal sisterhood and brotherhood.  If we do this then we will bring an end to systemic police brutality, health disparities, economic injustice, and we will be able to evangelize. Why, because “They will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.”

A Reflection by Mr. Ashley Morris

Do you remember James Byrd, Jr.?

The June 1998 lynching of Byrd in Jasper, TX left a profound and indelible mark on my life. I was fourteen years old that summer when news of his grisly murder traveled quickly around the country. Authorities eventually arrested, charged, and convicted three white young adult men of beating and defiling Byrd before dragging him by his ankles to his death for several miles in a pickup truck. One horrifying account of this heinous crime was the possibility that Byrd was conscious during the most of the ordeal, definitively dying with the severing of his head and right arm after his body fell into a culvert.  The final indignity occurred when the three men deposited his torso in front of an African American church and cemetery.

I remember hearing the accounts of the murder as well as the feeling of sheer terror that overwhelmed me. My fear as a 14-year-old aspiring high school sophomore was wondering if such a thing could happen to a Black man in Jasper, TX, what would stop someone from committing the same insidiously evil act against me in Birmingham, AL? Further exacerbating my fear at the time was a crippling experience of sheer silence on the matter. If my parents or grandparents talked about the murder, they did not do so around me. My friends at the time did not discuss it either and I do not recall mentions of it in statements or condemnations made from bishops anywhere. As a Black Catholic teenager living and worshiping in Birmingham, AL, I felt as if I could not turn to my family, my friends, or the Church to be reassured that James Byrd, Jr.’s fate would not also be my own. I found myself clinging to my trust in the Lord, praying for safety from the evil machinations seeking to corrupt the hearts and actions of others.

Some twenty-three years later that exact same fear has worsened, growing exponentially with each breaking news alert announcing the unceremonious, untimely, and uncalled for end of a Black life. In twenty-three years, that same fear metastasized throughout my mind, body, spirit and soul as I recount at least five generations of wanton indifference to the dignity of Black life.

I imagine the concerns and anxieties of my great-grandparents when news of Bunk Richardson’s 1906 lynching in Gadsden, AL reached their doorsteps. I think of my grandparents’ fears and suspicions when learning of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s 1955 murder in Money, MS. I hesitate to ask my parents if they even knew about 13-year-old Virgil Ware’s 1963 murder in Birmingham as it occurred on the same day as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing. I tremble having seen countless Black lives taken, far too many to name and including James Byrd, Jr., knowing that the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have occurred during my 19-month-old daughter’s lifetime.

We share facts, statistics, and info graphics ad nauseam reminding individuals the world over that violent crime and abortions disproportionately plague our predominantly Black communities. The Mother Emanuel AME Massacre of 2015 in Charleston, SC made us fearful of safely praying in our churches. Christian Cooper’s May 2020 confrontation with Amy Cooper in Central Park made us fearful of birdwatching. Ahmaud Arbery’s February 2020 murder made us fearful of jogging in our own neighborhoods. Botham Jean’s September 2018 murder made us fearful of relaxing comfortably in our own homes. Atatiana’s Jefferson’s murder last year made us fearful of playing video games with a young relative in our own homes. Authorities profile and accost us for sleeping in the common areas of our college dorm rooms or waiting for business meetings at coffee shops. The specters of racial violence, discrimination, prejudice and death looming over Black lives for years relentlessly haunts us today with no immediate end in sight.

We are at a precarious time in human history where a great sense of urgency resonates loudly in our literal and visceral cries for justice to God the Father. This wailing for relief reverberates from a place of long-suffering, a legacy of affliction and struggle passed on through warnings, conditioning, and “the talk” despite our collective prayers and desires to live freely and authentically as children of God in sun-kissed melanin-enriched skin. While not the defining expression of our Black experience, our search for racial equality and equity, our struggle for human dignity and decency, our quest for reconciliation and restoration remains connected to us more as a dream deferred than the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Perhaps this is why I have remained terrified for my well-being since I was 14-years-old. The deafening silence that once characterized my understanding of James Byrd, Jr.’s murder now echoes loudly in a general refusal to fight and advocate for the dignity of Black lives amid all lives mattering from conception to natural death. If the fulfillment of God’s Will depends on our openness to serve Him, what fulfillment materializes from an inconsistent acceptance of the importance and necessity of Black lives?

I appeal to my sisters and brothers in Christ, as a Black Catholic young adult husband and father, to pray for God’s grace to empower and energize our movement and actions in fighting the sin of racism. At the same time, we must recall and pay heed to the prophetic words found in James 2:17, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Advocacy for my life, the life of my wife and daughter, of all people of color, is not a debate between political affiliations or systems of governance. We can no longer afford to estrange ourselves from the agonizing cries of our sisters and brothers yearning for justice. We can no longer cocoon ourselves in silos of complacency and comfort when sisters and brothers ache in our streets for rest and the peace of Christ. We can no longer claim kinship in Christ or proclaim a love of God whom we have not seen when we approach authentically loving the neighbors we see daily with apprehension, fear, resentment, or indifference. Not all can experience God’s promises if not all share in the gift of His grace. To paraphrase God’s message to Cain in Genesis 4:7, we must “act rightly” lest the sin of racism lies in wait for us, its urge for us. However, we can rule over it if we truly desire to.

The time to act is now, the time to move and motivate is now. My life is legitimately on the line, my daughter’s life is legitimately on the line, and our lives as members of the Body of Christ are on the line. There is no other way to express this prayer to God and this plea for help to one another.  I pray that we act in this special moment in time now so that my daughter’s fourteenth birthday will not be marred with the memory of yet another Black life lost to the sin of racism.

A Reflection by Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as a voice for black concerns enjoys mixed reviews. BLM is a slogan or motto or catch phrase akin to similar monikers that have marked social protest movements in the past here and abroad. On the BLM’s website is found some statements at variance with Catholic teaching and moral doctrine and would, by the estimation of some, suggest a sort of anarchy or an attempt to overthrow society as we know it. If their website is representative of what their premises are, for example as stated, to deconstruct the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure, endorsing notions of transgenderism, freeing the community from the tight grip of hetero-normative thinking, then from a Catholic perspective these ideologies would be troublesome. We’re just not sure what all this means or who has the authority in their ranks to publish such. This is where BLM’s critics register hesitancy with the movement being a genuine voice for the black community. People chant Black Lives Matter but may not necessarily subscribe to all that draws breath behind the rhetoric of some of its adherents. As far as we can tell, BLM is not an officially established racial justice organization. Certain critics who want to distance the movement’s impact go so far as to call it a Marxist organization, although the people who align with the movement do not see themselves as such. The highest levels of law enforcement in the US labeled Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Marxists and Communists in order to justify the ordered surveillance of these leaders. We can’t expect BLM to sanction Catholic social doctrine for BLM is not a religious movement but chiefly a social outcry whose adherents come from a variety of backgrounds across the country and outside the country in protest against law enforcement’s record of harsh treatment of blacks and those systems that register disinclination if not exclusion of people of color. BLM by all accounts is loosely organized among its adherents. Its activities tend to vary depending upon local issues surfacing from place to place. And as with all protest movements certain of its cheer leaders attach to the rallying-cry other agendas. When it comes to the question of endorsing or not endorsing BLM, if the analogy is appropriate, it’s akin to our partisan allegiances whether Democrat, Republican or Independent. People don’t subscribe to every idea that emanates from their platforms but in most instances plug into to their spirit or service track record. All biases aside, it appears BLM’s adherents long to see established throughout American society an affirmation that, amidst a multi-racial society like the US, the lives of black people do matter and once this endorsed it is believed we can articulate finally that all lives matter because all lives do, in fact, matter. But right now, it appears by a succession of current events, some lives do not matter, namely black ones. The push-back that ‘all lives matter’ is taken as undercutting the cogency of the message behind Black Lives Matter as a movement for black lives. Taken at face value, BLM can be understood by people of good will as an invocation born out of tears and frustration. Otherwise, see BLM for its posture of legitimate protest intending to influence legislation and policy that would dismantle the structures of discrimination and privilege. In absence of a Martin Luther King type leader today, BLM is seen by some to fill in the gaps left by a dearth of black leadership for these times. Social protest movements are famous for their disorganization and varying degrees of chaos or inner-conflict goings-on. BLACK LIVES MATTER might be seen analogous to slogans like, BLACK POWER in the 1960s or SOLIDARNOSC (Solidarity), the Catholic trade union movement in Poland protesting the oppression under Communism in the 1980s or even the ZEALOT movement in Palestine of Jesus’ day where Jews protested the oppression under Caesar and in cases thought the Messiah was closer in coming contingent upon the less number of Roman troops marching the streets of Jewish hamlets. At least one of twelve apostles is cited to have been sympathetic to the ideology behind zealotry and overthrow of Roman oppression. We run into, and the media highlights, people in different corners of society who find all this outcry, protest and unrest to be nonproductive, unpatriotic if not an irritant. Socially oppressed groups tend to choose monikers for their protest movement that supply passion and vision to their revolution. These catch phrases or rallying cries move on with the passage of time. New ones are adopted by groups as social movements evolve and issues morph into other things.