My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
On the third Monday of January, each year, our country and many in the world commemorate the birth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was born with the name Michael King, Jr.; however, his father was a Baptist minister who traveled to Germany and was inspired by Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation leader, and changed his own name as well as that of his 5-year-old son.
We commemorate his birthday because he truly was a great man who moved the dial and compass of justice in our country more degrees than we can count. Perhaps if we look at his life, it might be better that we commemorate the day of his assassination, or really martyrdom, on April 4, 1968. Yes, for Christian martyrs, we commemorate the day of their death, their birth into eternal life. How clear it is that this man was truly motivated by Christian ideals. Dr. King was a Baptist minister whose best speeches were really sermons in which he poured out his soul in order to influence the soul of his Nation.
The goals of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were completely in line with the themes of Catholic social teaching regarding life and the dignity of all people. He called on the community to participate and to include all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin, in our democracy. Dr. King emphasized the duty to advocate for the downtrodden, putting the needs of the poor and vulnerable first, finding solidarity in one human family, regardless of racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences.
How closely aligned Dr. King was to the thinking that today we consider commonplace; however, perhaps in the 1960’s, this was not as clear to all. In preparation for writing this column, I took the time to research and read the three great speeches of Dr. King again. The first, given in 1963 was, of course, “I Have A Dream.” This speech gave his vision of what America could be for his children in that most famous line, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
In 1963, I was already in the college seminary and was fascinated by this preacher who could stir the masses, and not only people of color, but also white people, who would come to understand what America really was all about. The second great speech of Dr. King was given on March 25, 1965, called “How Long? Not Long.” The speech spoke about non-violent resistance and civil disobedience and was within Christian context, a context which motivated his life and allowed him to give his life for what he believed to be true. Clearly, the right to vote was one of the issues, as it is now.
The whole issue of voter suppression, which still seems to plague us, is not gone. Dr. King spoke about the Jim Crow laws. As we know, Jim Crow is a pseudonym for eating humble pie, where black people at that time, whom he called the Negro, were segregated not only in the South but also in the North, not by law, but by practice.
These were the days of the March on Selma in Alabama, the days when Dr. King was able to engender ecumenical and inter-religious collaboration in bringing the issues of racial discrimination to the conscience of our Nation. In this speech, Dr. King speaks about Joshua and the Battle of Jericho. Joshua conquered Jericho, not by a powerful army but rather by prayer, and the sounding of ram horns, which brought down the walls of Jericho. So too, it was the ability of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to crumble so many walls that separated Americans from one another. However, the message of those walls still seems to haunt us today.
The speech in Selma takes its title from his use of the words “How Long? Not Long.”
“How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’
How Long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’
How long? Not long: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.’ ”
The last speech, or sermon which they really were, was delivered the day before his assassination in 1968. Dr. King had gone to Memphis, Tennessee, to champion the striking sanitation workers. He used the Book of Isaiah to underline the necessity of nonviolence because, as Dr. King said, “It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in the world; it is nonviolence or nonexistence.”
If we in America had taken these words to heart at that time, what a different world it would be. Dr. King used the parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most powerful that Jesus teaches to us, about those who do not take responsibility for the needs of others. In a most humorous way, Dr. King says that perhaps the priest and the Levite were going to some religious
meeting and did not have time to stop to help the poor man in need. How true this can be for ourselves when we lock ourselves into pure religious practice without understanding the meaning behind that practice.
Certainly, in this sermon, Dr. King was predicting his own demise. At the end of the sermon, he said, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been on the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. 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. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Would it not be great if the leaders of our world would echo these feelings of selflessness in the face of the responsibilities that our world puts upon political and religious leadership today. Unfortunately, the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this year will be somewhat hampered because of the coronavirus. Yet, we are reminded that one life lived for others is so much more important than a life that has been a life of selfishness.
Our country needs to put out into the deep of concluding the work Dr. King began over 60 years ago. His work is not complete. We still need to eradicate the original sin of the United States, which is racism. We need to eliminate it from our Nation and our Church. We will not live up to the ideals of our Nation nor of the Gospel if we are complacent and take Dr. King’s work for granted.
P.S. Yes, I write these words with a tribute to a young black girl who was my childhood friend in Newark, New Jersey from our ages of five to eleven until she and her family moved away. Harriett Darden Thompson passed away several months ago after a long illness.
In my early years, I was taught by my parents and grandparents that the color of skin was not important. The character of a person is so much more important. In Harriet’s converting to Catholicism as a child, I was able to help her by listening to the Catechism questions she had to memorize. I would ask the question, and Harriet would answer. And so, it was for the rest of Harriet’s life and mine that the memory of that innocent childhood friendship could influence how we think and how we feel for the rest of our life. May she rest in peace. Amen.