Tom McFeely is the National Catholic Register’s News Editor. He lives in British Columbia.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
To commemorate the occasion, First Things has reposted an article the late Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote in 2002 about King, who befriended Father Neuhaus in the 1960s at a time when Father Neuhaus was a left-leaning young Lutheran pastor with a predominantly black congregation in Brooklyn.
In his article, Father Neuhaus strips away the hagiographical mist that obscures contemporary understanding of King. Although Father Neuhaus gives full credit to the central role King played in launching the civil rights movement that shattered the walls of the framework of legal discrimination that violated the dignity of black Americans, he declines to gloss over King’s many flaws.
For all of that, though, King remains a genuinely great figure in American history, Father Neuhaus argues.
“Marshall Frady and others are right: If everything was known then that is known now, Dr. King would early have been brought to public ruin, and there would almost certainly be no national holiday in his honor,” Neuhaus concludes. “But God writes straight with crooked lines, and he used his most unworthy servant Martin to create in our public life a luminous moment of moral truth about what Gunnar Myrdal rightly called ‘the America dilemma,’ racial justice. It seems a long time ago now, but there is no decline in the frequency of my thanking God for his witness and for having been touched, however briefly, by his friendship, praying that he may rest in peace, and that his cause may yet be vindicated.”
— Tom McFeely