Betsy Phillips: Tennessee’s Kids Should Be Taught the Truth About Our History
At Nashville Scene, Betsy Phillips writes about Moms for Liberty’s push to suppress history, and connects that to the work of Martin Luther King, Junior.
I don’t particularly trust the idea of heroes. People — all people — are deeply flawed. But still, I want to talk about Joseph Durick. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve asked around about him, and the worst that anyone has told me about him is that he had a problem with alcohol. So, aside from the caveat about him having a job known for sometimes harboring terrible people, as far as I can tell, he was just a regular person with regular flaws.
Joseph Durick was born in Dayton, Tenn., in 1914. This means he was 11 when the whole country’s focus turned to Dayton during the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. He grew up and became a priest. He served in Alabama during the 1950s. He was actually somewhat committed to racial justice, even then. But he was among the moderate white clergy Dr. King was complaining about in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Like, not just in general. As the Encyclopedia of Alabama explains: “During King’s marches prior to his arrest, a diverse group of Alabama’s leading white religious leaders had gathered to discuss the rising racial tensions and issued a public statement that questioned the timing and methods of the civil rights demonstrations.” Joseph Durick was one of the signers of that statement.
If you haven’t ever read King’s letter before, please do. I read it in middle school, and I immediately came to hate America and to loathe my white skin. Oh no, wait — that did not happen. I actually felt a mixture of fear and pride that a minister — one with daughters — would be so courageous in his convictions, and I wanted to work for the kind of country he imagined.
Joseph Durick also read it, and he took it to heart. I’m sure it pricked his pride to be called out like that. I know it would bother me. But he ruminated on what King had written, and he let it change him. In 1964, Durick came to Nashville as coadjutor bishop. In 1969, he became bishop. He served on the Board of Project Equality. He was a member of the State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. When King was assassinated, Bishop Durick marched as a mourner.
King wrote in the “Letter From Birmingham Jail” about people like the Moms for Liberty, who try to sweep the tensions of our time out of view:
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
What the Moms are doing is trying to return to that negative peace. And it is our jobs — especially us white people living in the Nashville Bishop Durick helped bring about — to bring this stuff out into the open where it can be seen and dealt with.