PAINTING BY JIM EFFLER
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
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.
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
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
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
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
1889: The first Catholic Afro- American Congress assembles in Washington,
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-AmericansThe 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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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.”