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Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Legacy
By Clarence Williams, C.Pp.S.
Forty years after the civil-rights leader’s assassination, his Dream lives on but remains unfulfilled.


An Agent of Change
Liberty and Justice for All
Many Movements
Racial Chasm Affected the Church, Too
Embracing Our Differences
Searching for the Promised Land
A Family Still Divided
‘We Shall Overcome’
The Crucial Role of African-Americans in the Church
Significant Events of the Civil-rights Movement


AS THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination is upon us, it is important that we look back at the modern civil-rights movement. Dr. King certainly led the movement, but he was not alone in changing the history we live with today.

President John F. Kennedy and many other Catholic leaders helped raise support and solidarity which made the civil-rights movement viable and enduring.

Dr. King and President Kennedy represented marginal groups familiar with bigotry: One was an African-American, the other an Irish Catholic. They shared a heritage of struggle as outsiders to the dominant white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech challenged Americans to be true to their country’s founding ideals.

In the aftermath of their deaths, the visions of Camelot and the Dream of a color-blind society gave way to the horrors of Vietnam and the militancy of black self-determination.

The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 was the prelude to the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. President Kennedy, and President Lyndon B. Johnson after him, supported and protected Dr. King. This tragedy was only deepened when, two months after the civil-rights leader’s murder, one of the president’s brothers, Robert F. Kennedy, was also murdered.

The relationship between President Kennedy and Dr. King built on the historical relationship between abolitionist leaders in the white and nonwhite communities throughout the history of the United States. Dr. King and President Kennedy represented leadership that makes the act of reconciliation in social relationships realizable through civic engagement and struggle.

Dr. King possessed a critical consciousness and a capacity for leadership that propelled him to be the drum major for justice. He was gifted with an extraordinary commitment to make reconciliation real, despite threats on his life, his family and those who demonstrated and marched alongside him.

Facing death, Dr. King consecrated his life at the altar of racial reconciliation on a daily basis. His courage in the face of peril emboldened those who followed him as much as his brilliant oratory inflamed their hearts.

Faith and courage were the only arms that Dr. King allowed those who would stand with him before the blasts of the water cannons, the attack dogs, the stoning by hostile onlookers and brutal police arrests.

As a prophet of justice, Dr. King transformed the civil-rights movement into a spiritual force for reconciliation among people of every race.


An Agent of Change

Dr. King brought his message of nonviolent change and public protest demonstrations into the living rooms, the classrooms and the boardrooms.

The “soul force” he preached had rallied the common people of Montgomery, Alabama, to boycott the bus system in 1955. His moral leadership and courageous example challenged everyone to stay off the buses for 381 days.

Dr. King’s moral leadership influenced the country and the world as TV and print media followed the many struggles for social change in the South. He brought the struggle for reconciliation through civil rights to the North, where racial discrimination was made real through housing segregation, inferior education and racist hiring practices.

The struggle of civil rights drew worldwide attention due to the contradiction of the country’s boast as a bastion of democracy and a torch for human decency. Citizens from every race and religious persuasion joined in solidarity with the civil-rights movement and upheld its strategy of nonviolence, which Dr. King found in his study of Mahatma Gandhi, the famous Indian leader.

Dr. King’s leadership of the civil-rights movement garnered worldwide support and solidarity. Pope Paul VI welcomed him to the Vatican in 1964, the same year that he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.

Dr. King’s gift for making reconciliation real touched the lives of others for decades to follow, as others such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu can attest.

Dr. King’s influence has even reached into the new millennium. In the year 2000, the U.S. bishops submitted Dr. King’s name to be considered for recognition as “a martyr for the faith,” a distinction that Pope John Paul II was using for non-Catholic martyrs of the 20th century.

Dr. King’s life was a force for change, but his death unleashed a tidal wave of pent-up anger that set cities on fire. Urban riots followed in the summers following his death. The grief of so many who had hoped for change spiraled into spasms of rage, strife and racial hatred.

The response to his death would rupture the civil-rights movement, changing the course of race relations for the rest of the 20th century. The newly forged solidarity of black and white leadership in the civil-rights movement gave way to a new mood of black militancy. Caucuses were established in order for blacks to find their own voice apart from white influence and leadership to initiate black self-determination.

Demands for black leadership and black self-determination within existing civil-rights organizations created divisive controversy, as well as a sense of betrayal of interracial trust.

The goal of integration became suspect for angry black militants. Racial reconciliation between whites and blacks receded to the background as the emerging Afrocentric consciousness widened the social chasm.

The unifying voices of people of color and whites were drowned out by the more strident voices of American apartheid. Healing seemed beyond hope, and tolerance became the watchword for maintaining peace in society and in the Church.

The ’60s ended with a general disillusionment for college-age Americans and those affected by the Vietnam War. For older generations, the social unrest and its accompanying protests in the streets signaled the end of a brighter social future symbolized by President Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. King.

The ’70s became a period of cultural transition in which civil-rights leadership—both nonwhite and white—found the ground shifting beneath their feet.

The social strategies promoting racial self-determination were to become the mantras of various progressive movements for equality, such as sexism, ageism and classism.

Post-Dr. King leaders felt different about their racial identity and behaved differently in pursuing the long-denied civil rights and socioeconomic inclusion. Previously, leaders petitioned and protested so that Congress might bring redress to civil grievances. The new leadership realized that just laws did not make change happen overnight or justice a reality. They focused their attention toward the leaders of institutions who maintained the status quo, despite the change in legislation.

General appeals for change through Christian love were replaced in the civil-rights movement with appeals for social anger at acts of injustice and social oppression. This became a template for other social movements’ rhetoric and strategy.

These post-Kennedy/King social movements emerged to give voice to women’s liberation, as well as liberation for senior citizens, Chicanos and gays.

The vision of integration based on one’s character over one’s color was replaced with self-imposed separation in order to develop new social identities by racial, gender and class minorities. The effort toward solidarity of blacks and whites transitioned into solidarity of minorities against negative labels of the majority. The strains of “We Shall Overcome” gave way to “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”

The Catholic Church was caught up in this tidal wave of change. Just weeks after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, the Black Catholic Movement began in Detroit, Michigan. The National Catholic Conference on Interracial Justice met at the Book-Cadillac Hotel downtown.

During these meetings Negro priests throughout the country gathered each night to talk about the impact of the assassination of Dr. King. By the end of the national gathering, these priests called a press conference and announced to the world that “the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is a white racist institution.”

The reverberation shook the American Catholic Church to its foundation. Every Catholic leader formed a response to this indictment. The racial chasm had encompassed the Church. This group of priests formed the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.

Shortly after, there was the establishment of the National Black Catholic Sisters’ Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the National Black Catholic Lay Conference in Washington, D.C., and the National Black Catholic Seminarians’ Association (University of Notre Dame, Indiana).

1829: The Oblate Sisters of Providence—the first black Catholic religious order of nuns—is founded in Baltimore, Maryland.

1839: Pope Gregory XVI formally opposes slavery.

1854: James A. Healy becomes the first Roman Catholic priest of African-American descent. (The son of an Irish-born landowner and a biracial mother, Healy shied away from his black heritage. Augustine Tolton [1854-1897], born a slave, is widely considered the first true African-American priest.)

1864: St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Baltimore becomes the first parish designated for African- Americans.

1875: James A. Healy becomes the first Catholic bishop of African- American descent.

1889: The first Catholic Afro- American Congress assembles in Washington, D.C.

1903: Eliza Healy, sister of Bishop Healy, becomes superior of a Roman Catholic convent—the Academy of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament—in Port Richmond, New York.

1920: The first seminary for African-Americans—The Society of the Divine Word—opens in Greenville, Mississippi.

1958: The U.S. bishops call racism in the United States “immoral.”

1965: African-American S.V.D. priest Harold Perry is consecrated an auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, over some protests. He remains in this position until his death in 1991.

1968-1970: The first Black Clergy Caucus, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the National Black Sisters’ Conference, the National Black Lay Catholic Conference and the National Office for Black Catholics are formed.

1977: Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze becomes the first bishop of the new Diocese of Biloxi.

1979: The U.S. bishops release a pastoral letter on racism calling it “an evil which endures in our society.”

1988: Archbishop Eugene A. Marino, S.S.J., becomes the first African-American Catholic archbishop in the United States.

2000: Josephine Bakhita, a native of Africa, is canonized.

2008: The U.S. bishops establish the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity, which combines the Office of Ministry for Black Catholics with ministries for other minorities.

These groups represented the leadership of black Catholics throughout the Church. They became the example for other African-Americans in predominantly white religious organizations in the United States and worldwide.

This new Negro mood did not exempt the Catholic Church. The militant black Catholic leadership challenged African-American Catholics to assume their identity and challenge Church leadership to address their issues of institutional racism.

Assuming a black identity meant bringing about an appreciation of being an African people. Creating the new black ethos included bringing into church environments art, music, textiles and symbols. It also embraced gospel music from the contemporary non-Catholic culture which was championed by the Rev. Clarence Joseph Rivers.

The leaders of the black Catholic movement made their demands to the Church and, like other black groups, found supporters. The American bishops in 1971 founded the National Office for Black Catholics “to restore the credibility of the Catholic Church in the Black community.”

It set a precedent and became the template for other nonwhite offices in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Black pastors were appointed to parishes and black clergy were also selected as bishops and archbishops.

This was all in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination. His power in life was surpassed only by his power in death.

Racial and cultural change accelerated in the ’80s as media leadership called for attention to the “browning of America” with the growth of the Hispanic population. The conversation about this new social factor took on the language of culture rather than race.

The term “multicultural” provided a way to refer to new and old nonwhite groups. Race became a bad word, associated with anger, confrontation and strife. Multiculturalism became associated with an appreciation for cultural differences.

Celebrating cultural diversity symbolized by colorful flags, exotic foods and heritage festivals became a welcome distraction from the demands of social responsibility, justice and equality.

The ’90s gave rise to efforts to build bridges over the many social chasms of our postmodern world. Identity politics have multiplied and challenge the vision and reality of solidarity in any society. Globalization and economic development issues bring with them an increasing sense of how different North Americans are from others.

On the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, we can look at his enduring legacy philosophically, as a glass half-empty or half-full.

The glass half-full could be presented from the biblical perspective that “40” is a mystical number: Forty is prominent in the biblical portrayal of 40 days and nights of rain in the great flood, 40 years the Chosen People wandered in the desert, 40 days that Jesus fasted and was tempted in the desert.

The biblical sense of 40 describes a lengthy time of trial and hardship for the sake of purification and cleansing of the earth, of a people and for a holy mission. It was a tremendous new beginning for humankind when the dove returned to Noah with an olive branch. After years of wandering through the desert, Joshua led a new people into the Land of Promise. And Jesus came out of his ordeal proclaiming, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

A second view, that of the glass being half-empty, could be illustrated through the metaphor of the Reconstruction in the South following the Civil War.

In the post-Civil War era, black people experienced unprecedented social, political and economic advancement with the defeat of the Confederacy. But these tremendous gains were short-lived by the subjugation of black people under the discriminatory laws of Jim Crow.

Civil-rights laws for freed slaves were on the books but not enforced. What had seemed the end of unimaginable suffering for African-Americans—which paralleled the slavery in Egypt—became a forced journey of racial oppression.

Dr. King appeared as a Moses figure attempting to lead a people into the Promised Land—a land he said the night before his murder he would not see here on earth. But he felt that others would see it.

The loss of hope for the Promised Land fueled the fires of urban riots. To restore the hope of Dr. King’s Dream, programs such as the War on Poverty, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action arose.

Today we witness the reversal of the post-Dr. King efforts the same way the structural changes for equality were reversed a century ago after the Reconstruction era. History is repeating itself by offering a half-empty glass to people thirsting for justice.

The recent years have produced a different migration. As African-Americans came from the South in the 1950s to fill the northern and western states, many whites are now returning to inner cities and transforming them into upscale dwellings in a process called regentrification. In the wake of this new urban migration, nonwhites and poor whites are being pushed out to the periphery.

Regentrification is a phenomenon not lost on social historians. Scott L. Malcomson ends his book One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race by lamenting the reconstruction of residential segregation.

“White and nonwhite will still be members of one divided family...they will again go to racially separate graves in the mistaken belief that that is freedom,” he writes.

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? was the title of the famous book by Dr. King in 1967. For years this was still a question—despite the success of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The majority of African-Americans were challenged by poverty and a lack of education, as President Kennedy often stated in his support of black advancement.

Today, African-Americans are still three times as likely as white people to live in poverty, and acts of racial violence are in the headlines. Our post- Reconstruction era challenges social and religious leaders to pick up the mantle of President Kennedy and Dr. King and bring the races together.

We are called to study the spirituality of reconciliation as a spiritual exercise that announces the Kingdom of God is indeed at hand.

Solidarity and fellowship are lacking not only in this country, but also worldwide. The increasing threats to world peace demonstrate just how prophetic Dr. King’s message was to the human family when he said, “We either live together as brothers or we perish as fools.”

Hope is what Dr. King offered in his trying times. And it’s still alive today: Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical letter Saved by Hope, cites the African slave St. Josephine Bakhita as his example of hope. How fitting that in a world of racial oppression, an African woman saint is presented as a sign of hope!

It points to the human condition of the world today: So often we cannot see God in our brothers and sisters. Let us find in Dr. King’s legacy the faith to continue to hope for racial reconciliation and restorative justice.

Let us hope courageously in faith that “we shall overcome someday.”


1851: Sojourner Truth delivers her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in Akron, Ohio.

1852: Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a controversial anti-slavery novel.

1863: President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation legally freeing the slaves.

1865: Congress formally prohibits slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment.

1881: Tennessee passes the first of the “Jim Crow” segregation laws.

1890: The National Afro-American League is founded.

1909: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded.

1922: Claude McKay publishes a collection of poetry called Harlem Shadows, a trailblazer in the Harlem Renaissance.

1939: Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African-American to garner an Academy Award, winning Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind.

1947: Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.

1948: President Harry Truman desegregates the military.

1954: In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules against school segregation.

1955: Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American, is lynched in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Many historians believe the nationwide outrage following his death helped fuel the modern civil-rights movement.

1955: Rosa Parks refuses to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person. A boycott ensues.

1963: Over 200,000 people march on Washington, D.C. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech.

1964: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act.

1965: Protesters march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for voting rights.

1968: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

1972: Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) becomes the first African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

1983: Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple wins the Pulitzer Prize.

1986: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday becomes a national holiday.

1993: Dr. Jocelyn Elders becomes the first African-American woman to serve as surgeon general.

1997: Tiger Woods becomes the first person of African-American descent to win the Masters tournament.

2001: General Colin L. Powell is appointed Secretary of State by President George W. Bush.

2007: Barack Obama, a senator of African-American descent from Illinois, announces that he will run for president of the United States.


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