The Reverend Duncan Howlett’s biography appears in the introduction to his March 12, 1961 sermon in Lynchburg, Virginia. In this profoundly moving and image-laden sermon to his congregants at All Souls Church, Reverend Howlett begins with the archetypal image of the sea, specifically the “broad river of racial prejudice.” As an “evil-smelling and sludge-laden” river, it calls to mind the countless murders and lynchings of black Americans, where rivers capriciously hid and exposed corpses. Howlett asks his listeners to see from both sides of that river, from the “prosperous” side as well as the oppressed side. The basic problem, though, is not in privilege or its opposite, but in the “mists” of prejudice that rise from the river and “distort our vision in both directions.” Such mists cause us to see what we want to see, thereby creating even greater distances across the river. Even so, Howlett thinks he hears a new song, emanating from the heart of the black man and heard in the white community. The emerging river ballad is a song of love, a song of a better future, and a song of faith. It is also a patriotic anthem paying white America the ultimate compliment, for it says to them I believe in your Constitution, I believe in your capacity for love and for justice. “Can we not see that upon his shoulders, bent with the toil of centuries, we are lifted up? Can we not see that it is given to us in this century to rise to moral greatness, albeit on the back of those we have miserably oppressed?” Howlett closes his sermon by adopting the prophetic voice, beseeching his fellow white Americans to cross the river, to build the bridge and to honor God by so doing.
All Souls Church (Unitarian), Washington, D.C.
President Kennedy recently declared that the civil rights struggle now in process in the United States is a “two way street.” Thus he summed up, in an almost offhand remark, the most fundamental and perhaps the least noticed aspect of the entire civil rights movement. Today the Negro and the white communities stare at each other across a broad river of racial prejudice, flowing down from the most remote regions of man’s history, swollen to a flood by the great tributary of American slavery and the pattern of discrimination and segregation that followed upon it.
The landscape of either side of the river looks quite different from that on the other side. What you see depends on where you happen to be when first you raise your eyes to look across it. Many, on both sides, have not done that as yet. They have never even been to the banks of the river. They do not really know what segregation means. A few hardly know the river is there at all, although this number has been sharply reduced within the last few years. More have looked upon the river, or across it, and yet have