50 Years After the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
An Interview with Deacon Timothy Tilghman on the Catholic Church and the Civil Rights Movement
Wednesday, April 4, marks 50 years since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, brutal assassination by James Earl Ray, who gunned him down in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement for this occasion.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Deacon Timothy Tilghman, a married deacon of our native Archdiocese of Washington, ordained in 2010. I first met Deacon Tilghman through his and his wife Jennifer’s ministerial support of the Forestville Pregnancy Center, on whose board of directors I have served for four years. The Tilghmans are devoted parents and grandparents. The story of Deacon Tilghman’s family was recently covered by Chaz Muth of the Catholic News Service, and Deacon Tilghman’s testimony has appeared in various national Catholic newspapers, including the Archdiocese of Boston’s The Pilot and the Diocese of Green Bay’s The Compass, as it appears here: “Deacon’s Family Grieved After King Assassination, Witnessed Aftermath.” There are also two Catholic News Service videos: “Family of Deacon’s Brush with MLK” and “Faithful Reflection on King Assassination.”
Deacon Tilghman, the youngest of 13 children, was 15 years old when King was assassinated. The following is the transcript of our interview, in which Deacon Tilghman shared his insights on the intersection of the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s in general, Catholicism and the black community, the ministry of the Josephites, and the Catholic faith as experienced during the tumultuous 1960s.
Please tell us about your background and experience of faith.
I was formed in the Church in a day when Church and neighborhood were synonymous. I could walk an hour in any direction from my house and folks knew me because they had worked with my parents or one of my 12 older siblings. The neighborhood was extensive. My father’s parents were among the founding families at Saint Cyprian Catholic Church in 1893; my mother’s parents were at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Anacostia in 1920. My parents moved from Incarnation Catholic Church, where I was baptized, to be among the founding families at Saint Luke’s in SE Washington, DC, in 1957. I was in the first graduating class at Saint Benedict the Moor Elementary School.
The common element in these parishes was the presence of the Josephites. I grew up with the Josephite charism, and patterned my life on the Josephite way. I was attracted to my wife Jennifer because we shared a common sense of faith; I later discovered that she grew up with the Josephites in New Orleans.
What was it like living as a young black Catholic man during the Civil Rights Era?
Everybody in the neighborhood was excited about Dr. King and what he did. I don’t know if I see that happening today. I had a friend, Tyrone Williams, who died a number of years ago. He would impersonate King speeches, and people enjoyed hearing those impersonations. There was a great sense of community, of wanting to be in King’s presence. My cousin Sahon said of him, “I was really drawn to judging people by the content of their character, instead of the color of their skin” (a direct reference to King’s iconic words).
King was exciting; he was electric. It was inspirational to see a man of color who was able to bring hundreds of thousands of people together. Down in Alabama, the Montgomery bus boycotts lasted around 400 days, and people united for a just cause. It forced people to recognize us blacks for who we are, people of great faith and power. There has not been a demonstration of power like the Montgomery bus boycotts since then.
What was the relationship like between Catholics and other Christians in general in the 1960s, independent of the Civil Rights Movement?
There was a lot of emphasis on what was “different.” There were even Christians who said that Catholics were not Christians. We didn’t understand each other’s faith traditions, and what we didn’t understand, we found “scary,” so we avoided it. Vatican II recognized the value in Christian traditions, such as the document on ecumenism [Unitatis Redintegratio]. The same is true for other faith traditions. The Church recognized this over 50 years ago, and recognized it quite clearly. If we were the Church that we read about on paper in Vatican II, our world would be a much better place. We need faith, because our faith will carry us through, no matter what the challenge of the day is.
Where were you when you heard that Rev. Dr. King was assassinated?
I was at home. My father said: “You’re not going out!” I watched a lot of things on TV, and smelled a lot of smoke in the neighborhood. Eventually, we got the chance to go out and into the city. My father was a union leader who knew a lot of people throughout the city, so he helped to deliver food and to be of service during a very difficult moment.
What are some things that the Church can learn from the experience of the King years?
The Church can remember its roots. Everything that Dr. King stood for – every principle that he applied in his life – when he talked about love and justice and community, you will see if you read through the 16 documents of Vatican II. We need to make sure to articulate what we believe, and act on that with conviction. We hold fast to everything that we see that is a representation of the absolute truth that Christ is alive and acting in the world, and is committed to transforming the world. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). King did what he did because he loved people. He saw people in the right way, and I say that he loved President Johnson. He didn’t give President Johnson a pass; King converted this “son of the south.” Dr. King didn’t act in the box. He talked about voting rights, about the Vietnam War. Our life is based on the great Commandments: to love God and neighbor. King lived the Great Commandments in a real, practical sense, and if we live that in a real, practical sense, things will be better.
Do you have any closing thoughts for readers about how we can honor King’s legacy, looking at the involvement of the Catholic Church in the Civil Rights Movement?
There are a whole lot of things that go along with that. I talk about that in my own book, Going to the Well to Build Community. In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, he recognized her brokenness. He met her in her brokenness and looked for something of the image of the Father in her. The woman spoke of their common ancestor, Jacob, who gave us this well. When she asked him about the living water, it is a reminder to seek Jesus’ healing power.
We can find the image of Christ in everyone whom we encounter. The pope speaks about this encounter in the Joy of the Gospel: “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Exodus 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates, and encourages growth in the Christian life” (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph #169). I ask people to go back to their childhood. Everyone knew you and your family; we shared history and a values system. That values system was rooted in the Gospel, in faith. That grounded nature, that sense of anchor, is what made the Civil Rights Movement possible.
That is what Cardinal Wuerl calls out in his 2017 pastoral letter on racism [The Challenge of Racism Today], since we need to speak about each other as brothers and sisters. We recognize the faith of the African-American community. Through slavery, through Jim Crow, through segregation, people persevered because we were rooted in faith. To bring it directly to Dr. King, he was rooted in that faith tradition. There in Atlanta, he could not walk away from that faith. I can’t walk away from my faith of the Josephite Fathers and Brothers that I received at Saint Luke’s Church and at Saint Benedict the Moor School. It’s rooted in who I am.
This year is 50 years for various things: in New Orleans, we will celebrate 50 years of the permanent diaconate. The first men to serve as deacons in the U.S. came from Josephite parish communities. The Josephites were instrumental in showing how to live the faith as a married, ordained, Catholic man, not just for their parishioners, but for all who were called to the diaconate.
The point of being in the Church is being rooted and grounded in faith and sharing that faith. We didn’t know what would happen when Christ was crucified on that Friday afternoon. King’s death was a moment of darkness, and a great deal of light came from his life. We are the Easter people, and we celebrate the Resurrection with our brothers and sisters.