MOBILE, Ala. — Martin Luther King Day is a time to promote racial harmony in America and honor the slain civil-rights leader who was “inspired by the teachings of Christ,” says the head of the Knights of Peter Claver.
“Considering that so many ‘churchgoing folks’ were supporting segregation and Jim Crow laws during the civil-rights movement, it is wonderful that King dedicated his life to employing Christ’s teachings to resist and counter the very social sins of prejudice, racial discrimination and segregation,” Supreme Knight F. DeKarlos Blackmon told Catholic News Agency Jan. 18.
He said Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister, was “a man of faith and deep conviction” who studied Catholic theology and was “particularly impressed” with St. Augustine.
King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” cited St. Augustine’s saying “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Since 2010, Blackmon has headed the Knights of Peter Claver, a New Orleans-based Catholic fraternal order present in about 39 states and in South America. It takes as its model the Spanish Jesuit priest St. Peter Claver, who ministered to slaves in Colombia in the 1600s. Its membership is significantly African-American, but the order is open to all practicing Catholics without regard to race or ethnicity.
The organization was founded in Mobile, Ala., in 1909 by four priests of the Josephite Fathers and three Catholic laymen to serve African-Americans and other racial minorities. Its founders were concerned the Catholic Church would lose black individuals to fraternal and secular organizations at a time when local racism kept many out of the Knights of Columbus.
The order has six divisions: the Ladies of Peter Claver, two separate junior divisions for young men and young women, the Fourth Degree Knights and the Fourth Degree Ladies of Grace.
The Knights of Peter Claver and the Ladies Auxiliary opposed segregation and worked to transform how communities and cities thought about race, equality and justice, Blackmon said. They worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League.
The order’s leadership and members were “intimately involved” in the civil-rights movement. Civil-rights attorney A.P. Tureaud, a national secretary and national advocate of the order, worked with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to help overturn legal segregation.
The now demolished Claver Building in New Orleans, which was the Knights’ headquarters from 1951 to 1974, hosted early meetings “that ultimately launched the civil-rights movement,” Blackmon added.
Today, members of the order organize Martin Luther King Day activities like Masses of unity, prayer services, days of unity and programs commemorating King’s vision in addition to their other charitable works.
King’s Challenge to America
Blackmon said King challenged America “to live out its creed that all men are created equal.” He said the observance is an opportunity for American Catholics to remember King’s life and work and to realize the challenge to work towards Jesus’ prayer that the Catholic Church “may all be as one.”
He said African-American Catholics should use the day to remember those who have accomplished “something for the larger community and the greater good.” He mentioned African-American Catholic bishops like the late New Orleans auxiliary Bishop Harold Perry and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, former president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Blackmon praised the rise of African-Americans in professions like law, medicine, higher education and politics.
“We have realized numerous African-American and Hispanic cabinet officials, legislators and federal judges. We have realized a black president in the White House,” he said.
However, he added, “There is still yet more to be effected.”
“By the grace of almighty God, by the arduous work of our hands, by the standing up to be a witness to the saving power of God, we will overcome prejudice, racism, intolerance, bias, narrow-mindedness and chauvinism,” he said.
He said Christians must be “ever mindful of our role in not only welcoming, but also embracing and helping ‘the stranger’ among us.”
The Knights of Peter Claver aim to serve God and the Catholic Church. They assist the needy, the sick and disabled, while developing their members through fellowship, recreational activities, scholarships and charitable work. Their website is KofPC.org.