What Martin Luther King Did — and Why He Did It

“We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all our actions.”

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., he is remembered for his unwavering commitment to racial justice and love. It may be hard now to imagine a nation where the races were consistently segregated, and where blacks had few actual rights. But that was the reality in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Martin Luther King, Jr., rose to prominence and led a movement that would change America, for the better, forever.

A figure that has certainly become larger than life over time, Dr. King stands for so much more than just racial equality. Non-violent resistance, civil disobedience, and the capacity to mobilize people into a movement that would effectively change the culture are all part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s enduring legacy. But what, if anything, might Catholics take away from it today?


(1) God uses imperfect people

Most of us are familiar with some of the more sordid tales from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s private life. Thanks to FBI surveillance, there is proof of King’s multiple extramarital affairs. Some people will use this in an attempt to discredit him, or somehow diminish the good that he did. But really, why? We of all people know, from the lives of the saints and Bible stories like the one about King David and Bathsheba, that God paints with crooked lines, and isn’t above using very human and flawed people to do His will. The human condition is fraught with ups and downs, and none of us is free from sin. We can acknowledge some less-than-savory aspects of a person’s life without writing off the good they did. And in the process, we can be encouraged that even we, imperfect as we are, are more than capable of rising to the challenge and impacting the world for good.


(2) There is a place in a Catholic person’s life for civic engagement

Occasionally, I hear Catholics making the argument that there’s simply no use in pursuing political objectives to advance moral causes. Most recently I’ve seen this when it comes to the issue of abortion. “It’s not primarily a political issue,” “You can’t legislate morality,” and “Politicians don’t really care about the unborn” are typical of the things some modern Catholics say. But what if Martin Luther King, Jr. had thought that way? Would he have written his Letter from a Birmingham Jail? Would he have inspired the march on Selma? Would blacks enjoy the freedoms they have today, had King given up on public policy, and focused solely on changing hearts instead? It may be a long and difficult road, but if Martin Luther King, Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that civic and public movements can affect change — which often opens the door to changed hearts, too.


(3) The most meaningful change is rooted in an appeal to the transcendent

When we talk about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., we tend to place the focus on the things he did or accomplished. Less talked about is his motivation. He began his public campaign with the words, “We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all our actions.” In 1965 he wrote that “All men, created alike in the image of God, are inseparably bound together.” And in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail he states, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” It is clear through both his written and spoken words, then, that Dr. King’s beliefs ultimately spring from a deep and abiding faith in God. When approaching cultural or public policy issues, whether it’s euthanasia or the problem of racism, Catholics should be sure that their positions reflect God’s plan for men and for women. We should seek only solutions that are in line with the pillars of Catholic social teaching. And if we do, we too might leave a legacy in the style of Martin Luther King, Jr.