Fifty years ago this week, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr gave an iconic speech. It offers a vision of the best impulses of the American experiment. No matter how many times I watch video of Dr. King I still get goose bumps. I want to be that community, where children are judged by the content of their character. As a Catholic theologian, I have always been struck by the realized eschatology throughout King’s prophetic messages. And, fifty years later, as I listen once again – I am struck by the “already but not yet”
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
Newscasters and activists have been highlighting the racial and ethnic diversity of the crowd. This weekend and in today’s celebration, leaders highlighted both our successes and our failures – the arc of justice is long. For me, listening today I could not help but think of my grandfather, John E. Clark, Jr. who embodied the hope of King’s Dream and presents me, his granddaughter with a persistent challenge to fight for justice, in all its complexity.
The great-grandson of slave owners, his mother was the last born in the manor house of a Maryland plantation. Her ancestors served in the Revolutionary Army and the Confederacy for Virginia. Raised far from that legacy in Vermont, my grandfather grew up in a loving and devoutly Catholic home with few material resources. He earned a full scholarship to Fordham by taking an IQ test. This Southern heritage was not his culture or his upbringing, but he chose to face it none the less. After college and library school, he became a community librarian and used his position in the community to fight for justice. He and my grandmother brought their children (and later their grandchildren) to protest marches, political action campaigns, and community service projects. Active for civil rights, he was honored by the Long Island NAACP (as well as the Anti-Defamation League). I was always proud of my grandfather, whom I adored and admired beyond words – but never was I prouder than when NY Newsday profiled him alongside 5 other Long Island civil rights activists who died the same year as Rosa Parks (Oct 2005).
My grandmother loved to tell the story of my dad spending the day with my grandfather at work (director of a local library). When they got home my grandmother asked about their day to which my father responded “Dad just walks around talking to people all day.” At his wake countless library patrons stood on line to tell us how he listened and they always went away with the sense that he had heard their concerns, even if he disagreed. What made him remarkable is that he did not walk around talking, he walked around listening.
In his steadfast commitment to peace and justice, my grandfather represented the promise, the “already” of King’s prophetic vision. What made that possible is that he recognized and exposed his own white privilege. The unity of the descendants of slave owners with the descendants of slaves is not a Utopian party in which everyone just gets along – it requires unmasking injustice. In “Unpacking the Knapsack” Peggy McIntosh explores why it is so difficult for whites to admit and accept their racial privilege, an exercise that is worth the time. In part, I think that is part of why even though we can all quote the I have a a dream section, most of us don’t pay much attention to the earlier sections of that speech (or his speech “Why I am against the war in Vietnam”). But if we are honest with ourselves and the public debate right now – we will hear the biting critique of King rings as true now as it did in 1963.
“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this cheque – a cheque that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
At this past weekend’s celebration, Newark Mayor Cory Booker noted that his father used to remind him that “he did not hit a triple, he was born on 3rd base.” Like Booker, I was raised with the knowledge that I was born into significant privilege – that privilege was not monetary but education and with that a significant responsibility for the not yet. In a poignant essay “King and I” Bryan Massingale cautioned against sanitizing King or placing him on a pedestal. Listening to King’s speech challenges me to face my own ancestral history and the subtle ways in which I am privileged because others are treated with suspicion still.
I love history and family history in particular. I have always had an insatiable desire to understand who and how people are connected – but a side effect of that is when I discover a new colonial ancestor, I risk finding records like this:
“I give and bequeath to my niece Mary Jane Wills, three hundred fifty dollars, which sum I desire to be applied to her education. I also give and bequeath to my niece Mary Jane Wills, one negro woman Charlotte, my carriage and horse.”
This was my great-grandmother’ s grandmother, a woman who until today I didn’t know her name. Facing the reality of white privilege and the complexity of the American story requires that I face this part of my heritage along with my Irish ancestors fleeing the famine.
The legacy and injustices are social and structural, they are not limited to the literal descendants of the colonial families. Often conversations about racism and white privilege get stalemated because people are uncomfortable with the implications of complicity or guilt. Why are we so afraid of being uncomfortable? For me, avoiding this discomfort is impossible. What I learned from my grandfather’s lived response to King’s challenge is a vision that proactively sought justice. His faith pushed him to name and relinquish the privilege of a situation he didn’t create, but that perpetuated injustice. Perhaps the greatest gift my grandparents gave me was a model of fighting for justice as lived Catholicism wading into the already but not yet of King’s eschatological dream.
This article is also featured on Catholic Moral Theology.