Remembering MLK’s Radicalism and Defending the Dignity of Black Lives

Nichole Flores writes:

Martin Luther King Jr. has been upheld as the paragon of racial justice activism, offering a broadly compelling account of human dignity grounded in his vision of the beloved community. But 50 years after his assassination, this vision is often manipulated or taken out of context in ways that water down the radical nature of his dream or minimize his life of protest and active solidarity that ended with the violence of a bullet aimed at silencing his message. It is this same vision of human dignity, however, that calls us to re-examine Dr. King’s moral legacy for us today. Specifically, his affirmation of human dignity compels Catholics to declare that black lives matter and to align our church with an affirmation of the sanctity of black life….

If human beings are created in the image of God, then the hatred of any human person, including the hatred or mistreatment of another person based on his or her race, is an affront to that image. But this is only the baseline of a Christian response to racism. The more difficult, more demanding and more Christlike response to racism requires a positive love of and enduring solidarity with those who have been subject to racial injustice, especially those neighbors whose lives are being threatened by hatred and violence. More than a general, abstract affirmation that racism is wrong or undesirable for society, Catholic faith requires acknowledgment of specific persons and communities who are being threatened and harmed by enduring structures of anti-blackness and a resurgent cultural acceptability of racist ideas and actions. In short, Catholic faith demands that we proclaim that black lives matter….

Protest is the public face of the demand for dignity, expressing specific social and political claims linked to this moral affirmation. These claims include voting rights, education, employment, housing and equal treatment under the law. While some find protest to be too radical or socially disruptive, marching with those whose lives are treated as if they do not matter is a vital aspect of Christian solidarity.

We cannot forget that protest was a centerpiece of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian witness, the embodied manifestation of his belief that all people are created equal. He marched for the truth for which he was ultimately killed: that black lives should matter to us because they already matter to God.

A Christian Prophet

Millennial co-founder Christopher Hale has a new article in America on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which argues:

It is important that as we commemorate Reverend King, we remember the man he truly was: a Christian prophet for justice and a man deeply formed by a religious experience of God and of Jesus Christ. Doing so does not marginalize King, but rather contextualizes him correctly and gives his vision flesh. It reminds us that King’s dream was not his alone, but was and still is the dream of God for humanity.

The full article can be read here.


The Promise and Challenge of Already but Not Yet: Personal Reflections on MLK’s Vision

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.

The Secularization of MLK

It is no coincidence that Reverend King marched on the Feast of St. Augustine, one of his favorite early Church heroes. It was Augustine’s declaration that “charity is no substitute for justice withheld” that inspired the young King to pursue his ministry with more fervor.

It’s important to remember that King viewed the March as a religious experience more than a political rally. His sermon “I Have A Dream” was rooted in the words of the prophet of Isaiah who too had a dream of a world made new with God’s loving justice.

Dr. King & Catholic Social Teaching

Martin Luther King Jr. is a national hero, a remarkable figure whose courageous pursuit of justice compelled Americans to recognize and correct our nation’s failure to live up to its highest ideals, those so elegantly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Yet King’s vision transcended these ideals. He articulated notions of equality, freedom, and justice more aligned with the common good than any imagined by our nation’s founders. For Catholics, King’s philosophy is especially appealing as his personalist, communitarian worldview is remarkably consistent with core Catholic principles. Meanwhile, King’s dream of an America united in universal brotherhood and sisterhood should remain the North Star that guides us as we work to end the divisions created by racial bigotry and prejudice and their enduring legacy.

The foundation of King’s philosophy is his understanding of the human person. King believed in the “sacredness of human personality”—that each person has inherent dignity and worth. For King, as for Catholics, since we are each made in the image of God, the innate worth of every person is fundamentally equal. Therefore, as children of God, universal brotherhood and sisterhood define our relationships with one another.

King rejected the premise that one’s race, occupation, gender, family background, natural intelligence, or skills determined one’s dignity and worth. He recognized that success, even greatness, is not determined by one’s social status or reputation, but by love-inspired service of others. King said, “Anybody can be great…because anybody can serve.  You don’t need to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

King recognized that as social beings, we crave fellowship and can only reach our full potential as persons in community. He believed in the solidarity of the human family, and that “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Thus, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” For Catholics, the quest for communion is our preeminent goal. Among the ways we pursue God is by loving others, as God dwells within each person. The failure to love others and treat them justly is a failure to become fully human.

This mentality leads to the recognition that deleterious social conditions often act as obstacles to the full intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual development of human persons. For both King and Catholics, social structures must always serve as the means to human flourishing. They should always be treated as means not ends because social structures can institutionalize injustice, dehumanizing the persons they are meant to serve. Social structures that prevent people from attaining their basic needs, which serve as prerequisites to their full development, are incompatible with human dignity and must be abolished or reformed. Justice, the common good in Catholic teaching and the beloved community in King’s thought, must be animated by love and grounded in the transcendent moral law.

King recognized free will, the human capacity for both incredible works of mercy and petty displays of egotism. He said, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Freedom is to be valued because it allows us to fulfill our responsibilities. Our rights and responsibilities are inextricably linked.

Because he recognized the reality of sin, King did not believe that progress was automatic, nor did he embrace utopian delusions. He avoided the indifference and inaction bred by this type of belief in progress and the embrace of moral evils to achieve a greater good so often following from utopianism. Instead, King was driven by hope, the Christian virtue that inspires our actions and gives individual acts of service cosmic meaning. King argued, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is neither a call for complacency nor a manifestation of excessive sanguinity, but a recognition that history is not governed by mere chance but a loving God. Thus, “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.

The hope that inspires King’s philosophy and Catholic social teaching, and the rich, sophisticated understanding of freedom and justice expressed in each, could not contrast more sharply with the right-wing radicalism that has flourished since President Obama’s election in 2008. The Tea Party movement, shaped by radical individualism, social Darwinism, and a narrow, utopian understanding of liberty, is filled with doomsday prophets predicting the imminent destruction of American freedom at the hands of President Obama. This movement offers conspiracies and paranoia, anti-government crusades, and the promise of an increased consolidation of wealth among multimillionaires and billionaires. The defenders of human dignity inspired by King and Catholic teaching must join together to ensure that these forces will not destroy the great accomplishments of the 20th century and ignore the government’s responsibility to promote human flourishing.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s most powerful vision was of an America no longer stained and divided by the scourge of racism. In one of the great speeches in human history, King famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

That dream endures. We still dream of a day when a person’s skin color will matter as much as their eye color, where unfair discrimination based on race will seem silly and strange. To achieve this, however, effort has to be made to break down the social construct that is race. This requires individual conversion through the eradication of the intellectual and spiritual ignorance that generates bigotry, an effort that has made incredible progress in the last fifty years. It also necessitates the creation of a more just society. Disparities in incarceration rates, access to quality healthcare, educational attainment levels, life expectancy, and a variety of other social conditions generate, preserve, and entrench racial identity. These cause alienation and act as a barrier to the construction of the society described in King’s speech.

As we celebrate King’s life and legacy, we can revel in his great achievements, but let us not forget, his work remains unfinished.

This article first appeared on Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good’s Common Good Forum.