MLK’s Clarity Shines Brightly in This Difficult Hour


Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his ‘I Have a Dream …’ speech.
Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his ‘I Have a Dream …’ speech. (photo: public domain)

We are witnessing a difficult and painful moment for the nation and the world. We have seen deeply saddening and profoundly troubling scenes of inequality, injustice and violence. In response, some are calling into question whether the very institutions established by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution can respond adequately to the needs of the moment, and some have gone so far as to speculate that this country generally lacks legitimacy on racial issues.

This Fourth of July, America marks the 244th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which avowed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Now, of course, is not the time to abandon the truth of human dignity and equality enshrined in the Declaration. And as we look at the various models that are being proposed for confronting this moment in our nation’s history, there is one voice worth hearing: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It might seem odd to see a Baptist preacher quoted in a Catholic newspaper, but as the Vatican noted, King’s vision for racial harmony and nonviolence has been embraced by every pope since St. Paul VI — who met with the civil-rights leader.

St. John Paul II and Pope Francis have both cited King’s “dream” as important, and Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the “driving force” that was King’s “faith.”

In his famed “I Have a Dream …” speech, delivered in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Rev. King declared that the great and peaceful march upon the nation’s capital was there to make good on the country’s foundational, July 4 promise of equality for all Americans.

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” he said, this was a promise “to which every American was to fall heir.” These documents, King noted, were “a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’”

A year before the Civil Rights Act formally dismantled the Jim Crow segregation system, King warned his fellow Americans that the country had yet to make good on its promise.

“Instead of honoring this sacred obligation,” he proclaimed, America had defaulted on its promise.

But King did not abandon hope. He rejected any idea that American “justice is bankrupt.”

King knew the tragic and violent injustices suffered by the African American people and the courage and fortitude that would be needed to achieve a truly just society, but he also refused to give up on the core principles of the nation. He came from a place of faith, and he understood that our unalienable rights are endowed by our Creator, a truth he boldly affirmed by returning in his speech to the Declaration and the great promise of America.

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 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.’”

He expressed the sense of urgency — an urgency that has not dissipated over these 57 years — and then, as he did countless times, he spoke out clearly against racism, but also called for peaceful and nonviolent protests and solutions: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

Little wonder that Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have promoted King’s message. In addition to promoting human dignity that our faith teaches, it promotes the forgiveness and reconciliation so central to our faith, as well.

This is what we must do now if we are to, as King dreamt, “lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

This puts faith at the heart of all things, especially now in a time of doubt and crisis. As people of faith, we must speak boldly that these truths are self-evident and that all men are created equal. As Catholics, we must be fearless in proclaiming our opposition to all injustice — including racial and religious injustice — and to obey even more ardently the command of Christ to “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Christ’s commandment is simple, and it means rejecting both racism and violence. This is how our country moves ahead.

God bless you!