By Father Alonzo Cox
Since the year 1983, our country has deemed the birthday of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be a federal holiday. For some, this is just another holiday to relax from work, get errands done, or to catch up with friends and family.
Holidays are meant to be moments of celebration. Over these last several months, holidays have become very different. Thanksgiving and Christmas are just two examples of holidays that were celebrated much differently than before.
Many of us spent these days at home using the gift of modern technology to communicate with loved ones. Many of my parishioners have told me that they were just not in the “holiday spirit,” which is completely understandable. I think the same can be said for this holiday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Each year we recall the life and legacy of this man who fought tirelessly for equality and justice.
Each year we look back at the sermons and speeches he gave that outlined a path for all people to come together in harmony. Each year we come together as a nation to pray for peace and an end to systemic racism and bigotry in our society. All of that we do, but in a very different way and in a very different spirit. How is this celebration different from years past? To answer that question, all we need to do is look at what is happening all around us.
Dr. King gave thousands of sermons and speeches reaching the ears of hundreds of thousands of people. Each of these speeches and sermons gave us a roadmap to justice and peace. One of the most poignant and powerful speeches Dr. King ever gave was his very last one on April 3, 1968, just one day before his assassination. Dr. King was invited to Memphis, Tennessee to preach at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple. This sermon has been popularly referred to as “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
Dr. King began his sermon by saying, “Something is happening in Memphis. Something is happening in our world.”
He was speaking of the events that were occurring in Memphis of how 1,300 Black sanitation workers went on strike because of a long pattern of neglect and abuse. Just days earlier, two Black sanitation workers were killed by a malfunctioning truck. Nothing was done to make working conditions better for these workers. In speaking to these men, Dr. King preached about the need for economic equality and social justice.
Today the message of Dr. King resonates now more than ever. Something is happening in our world! Something is happening in our society! Over these last several months we have witnessed with our own eyes division, hatred, and racism. We as a society have watched Black lives taken by violence through the hands of white racists. Our society has become bruised by the many acts of racism both in word and action. All in the midst of a global pandemic.
This is a very different Martin Luther King Jr. Day for us! We must use his words as an example to move forward in building up our community, preaching a culture of equality and justice. Too many of our brothers and sisters remain in the same conditions Dr. King preached about over 50 years ago.
We must use this holiday to reflect on what we can do as disciples of the Risen Lord to better our community in promoting peace, equality, and justice. Towards the end of his sermon, Dr. King speaks those iconic words, “I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Let us reflect upon the words of this leader for justice, that together we will be able to live in a land where all of us can stand side by side, hand in hand as brothers and sisters created in the image and likeness of God.
Father Alonzo Cox is the pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish, Bedford-Stuyvesant and coordinator for the vicariate of Black Catholic Concerns for the Diocese of Brooklyn.