Fifty years ago today, on August 28, 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. electrified the nation with the soaring rhetoric of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the climax of the March on Washington. He appealed that day to the American creed of freedom and equality for all, but as a minister, his tireless work for civil rights and justice was rooted in Scripture, in the way Jesus taught us to live and love.
Catholic social teaching in particular has provided a roadmap on the march for justice, highlighted in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Many subsequent popes wrote encyclicals emphasizing the centrality of this teaching.
So, it was natural that joining Dr. King as a speaker that day was Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle, my predecessor as the Archbishop of Washington, who offered the invocation. Earlier, he had encouraged local Catholic groups, parishes and universities to participate, marching with their pastors and offering hospitality to out-of-town marchers.
In 1948, Archbishop O’Boyle had become Washington’s first resident archbishop, and in 1967, its first cardinal. Shortly after becoming archbishop here, he began working to integrate racially segregated local parishes and schools, several years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated educational facilities. He also helped found and served as chairman of the Interreligious Committee on Race Relations, and joined the city’s religious leaders in advocating for equal opportunities in housing, jobs and education. At the Second Vatican Council, he advocated a clear-cut declaration condemning racial prejudice.
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Archbishop O’Boyle prayed, “Send in our midst the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of all to the great truth that all men are equal in Your sight. Let us understand that simple justice demands that the rights of all be honored by every man.”
Praying, working, standing and marching together for justice and freedom are central to who we are as Christians – Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox standing as one against the sin of racism. Our U.S. bishops specifically addressed this in their 1979 pastoral letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” and five years later, the black bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter on evangelization, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” emphasizing that living and sharing our faith is at the heart of our work for justice.
Strengthened by grace and encouraged by Christian hope, we go out and apply the Gospel to every aspect of life. That is why the Church has been at the forefront of movements to bring rights to workers and opportunities for the poor and for immigrants. That is why sisters, priests and laypeople joined the marches on Selma, and why we march for life today. That is why our Catholic Charities every day helps people throughout our community rebuild their lives, and why our Catholic schools open their doors to children from all backgrounds who learn together in a faith-filled atmosphere, so that one day they can help build a better world.
Yet, some now accuse Christians of bigotry or even hate speech when we express our beliefs, particularly those concerning marriage and the dignity of human life or the importance of religious freedom. This is nothing new – the early Christians were also subjected to antagonism, as Dr. King noted in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. This characterization also ignores the Christian contribution to the cause of civil rights and contrasts with Dr. King’s approach which brought together people of different faith backgrounds in a spirit of unity for a just cause in which they all believed.
Just as Archbishop O’Boyle stood with Dr. King 50 years ago at the March on Washington, so too today we must continue to pray, march and work together, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, for freedom and justice, guided by the truth of our faith in Jesus Christ.