Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whose holiday our nation celebrates today, appears to have made quite an impression on Pope Francis judging by the many times he has praised the great civil rights leader. For example, in his exposition on love in chapter four of Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father noted how Dr. King “met every kind of trial and tribulation with fraternal love” (118), and more recently in his Message for the 2017 World Day of Peace, he cited Dr. King’s philosophy and practice of nonviolence as examples for us today.

When Pope Francis addressed Congress, he recalled Dr. King’s legacy as a champion of civil rights and liberty for all, and a man of prayer and action who worked tirelessly for the poor and for peace. He said Dr. King’s dream continues to inspire America, which for many is still “a land of ‘dreams.’ Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”

At a time when violence, poverty, incarceration and limited educational opportunities still disproportionately affect African-American and other minority communities, and the sin of racism still exists, we greatly benefit by remembering the legacy of Dr. King. We must never forget that he was first a man of faith. Always faithful to the Lord and his Gospel, he quietly, forcefully, yet without violence, simply reminded this nation that we are all brothers and sisters because we are all children of the same God.

“Those who believe are never alone,” Pope Francis has noted (Lumen Fidei, 39), and Dr. King was not alone in his powerful witness. He was joined by so many African-American Christians who in the face of segregation and racism always kept the faith in Jesus and his Gospel, as I expressed in my December visit to Saint Benedict the Moor Parish. In the struggle for civil rights, parishioners there and others realized that they were a part of something much bigger and greater than any temporary and human-imposed injustice. They recognized that they were a part of God’s people – God’s family – and it was through the witness of unity in that family, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, that the nation would be transformed.

Celebrating the legacy of Dr. King offers a reminder that the Spirit can likewise empower us to be countercultural and prophetic witnesses to our society. Let us always thank God for him and the crusade he led, and let us remember our call to continue that vision and realize that dream, to be the conscience of our culture, as one people of faith committed to justice and peace.