Remembering Rev. King

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, the nation stopped to remember the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Alas, in the manner of contemporary holiday-making, there was less remembering than I would have liked, but the same could be said for Memorial Day and Labor Day too. At least in January, we did not have to have a barbeque to mark the day.

King’s legacy should not be discounted nor in anyway diminished because it remains unfulfilled. In his time, segregation was legally enforced. Today, segregation remains a problem, in some ways more difficult to overcome because it is more subtle and less the result of legal coercion, but we can’t put that on him, nor can we think the effort to repeal legal segregation unimportant. The nation perpetrated legal segregation and blacks were victimized by it. To borrow a phrase from Timothy Snyder, there is no moral shame in being a victim. The moral danger is being a perpetrator or a bystander. Other moral dangers persist, most obviously the inability of white Americans to recognize the continuing challenges faced by black Americans, but it is a good thing that the moral danger of enforcing legal segregation has been consigned to history.

This past year, racial tension seemed to rise. Most of the cause of that had to do with the decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, not to indict white police officers who had caused the death of unarmed black men. The criminal justice system is anything but just for black Americans and it is long past time that we, as a nation, took the issue in hand. Church leaders, Catholic and otherwise, are at the forefront of efforts to make our criminal justice system more just. Last year, the Institute for Policy research & Catholic Studies hosted a conference on restorative justice and you can find video and transcripts of the conference here. The Catholic Mobilizing Network, which also helped host that conference, has been doing great work in this area. It deserves the support of Catholics nationwide.

America’s economic system also perches uneasily across the racial divides. It is not true that the “War on Poverty” failed. Millions of black Americans – and others – were lifted out of poverty. But, combined with desegregation, more successful and affluent black Americans were able to move into the neighborhoods of their choice. Less successful and less affluent blacks were left behind in neighborhoods with greatly diminished social capital. Poverty became determinative of the culture in ways that were mutually reinforcing of other pathologies, most especially crime and drugs. Increasingly, some white neighborhoods are experiencing similar declines in social capital with attendant increases in social pathologies. Federal programs, essential for softening the hard edges of poverty, such as malnutrition among the young, have not been successful at raising people from the constraints of their neighborhoods. Catholic schools are a beacon of hope in many inner cities, and they too deserve our support, as well as the support of enlightened political leaders at the state and local level. But, more must be done. We often forget Rev. King’s devotion to the cause of economic justice, highlighting only his work for civil rights. To him, these were the same cause because he understood that civil freedom without economic opportunities were, if not empty, at least incomplete. The fight for economic justice, too, demands the full support of the Catholic community.

The Church has a great record on civil rights, then and now. Here in Washington, we take pride in the fact that our own Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle gave the invocation at the 1963 March on Washington at which Dr. King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. This past weekend, our current archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl presided and preached at a special Mass in honor of Dr. King. He said, in part:

Many in Dr. King’s time did not want him to speak for a just society, for freedom and equality for black men and women, boys and girls who had been victims of long-standing discrimination. There were also those described as lukewarm who did not want to hear Dr. King’s message, preferring, as he says in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the ‘absence of tension’ to the ‘presence of justice.’ But Dr. King insisted that we must be like the early Christians and work to transform the culture….

In a culture where racism was rampant and devaluing others was the order of the day, Dr. King quietly, forcefully, without violence and always faithful to the Gospel, simply reminded this society, this culture, this nation, that we are all one in the Spirit, we are all sisters and brothers because we are all children of the same God. If one is treated unjustly, we are all affected. None of us can turn a blind eye, none of us can remain silent, none of us can be passive in the face of oppression, violence and assaults on the fundamental dignity of the human person. Each of us is responsible for the harmony that should reflect the presence of God’s kingdom in our world. In a democracy, every citizen must accept some responsibility for the direction of the country. Especially as people of faith, we need to bring our moral values and vision to the market place.

“Always faithful to the Gospel.” Another part of Rev. King’s legacy that is too often overlooked is that he was a preacher of the Gospel. He was not simply a civil rights activist. He was not a social commentator per se. His vision sprang from his Bible. His doctorate was not in political science or engineering. He was most at home behind a pulpit not a lectern, and he tended to turn most lecterns into a pulpit. King was not afraid of the fact, certainly obvious to him, that preaching the Gospel would be divisive but he did not indulge the kind of culture warrior tactics that characterized subsequent generations of politically active clergy. His commitment to non-violence affected his tactics: He did not demonize or degrade others, even while he condemned their actions and confronted their attitudes.

I confess that growing up I knew King was a great man, but I did not realize how great a man he was until I read Taylor Branch’s three volume biography. King faced so many obstacles. His courage was quiet but steely. When confronted with the rankest bigotry, he responded with a dignity befitting a disciple of Jesus Christ, even if most of us fall short of that dignity. His ability to touch the deepest chords in America’s finest traditions of liberalism and humanity and Christianity was unparalleled. Dr. King had his faults, as do we all, but nothing can deny him a place in the pantheon of America’s greatest leaders. It is good to take a day and remember him. Better to take all our days and emulate him. 

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