Catholics Honor Martin Luther King on the 50th Anniversary of Assassination

Commemorations will include a moment of silence and a worldwide bell-ringing campaign, in addition to Mass in Memphis.

Dr. Martin Luther King giving his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King giving his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963. (photo: Public Domain)

WASHINGTON — Bells will ring out in honor of civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination April 4, and Catholic bishops say it is a time for Christians to ask God what they need to do to counter racism.

“The moment is also an opportunity for us to pause and reflect individually on what we are doing to build the culture of love, respect and peace to which the Gospel calls us and to also ask ourselves how we seek to help our brothers and sisters still suffering under the weight of racism,” the bishops said.

April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the civil-rights leader’s 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Commemorations will include a moment of silence and a worldwide bell-ringing campaign.

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and The King Center in Atlanta will begin to ring bells at 6:01pm Central time. The city of Memphis bells will follow at 6:03pm. Nationwide, bells will begin to ring at 6:05. Then international participants will begin two minutes later.

In Washington, D.C., the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will also take part. Its bells will peal 39 times, King’s age at his death, “in homage to Dr. King’s legacy and his many contributions, including the principle of nonviolent resistance,” the U.S. bishops said.

The tolling of the basilica’s bells will be broadcast live on the basilica’s Facebook page at

In Memphis, local Catholics will participate in the commemoration.

Memphis Bishop Martin Holley, who is African-American, will celebrate 9am Mass at Immaculate Conception Cathedral with visiting bishops and Catholic clergy of Memphis. There will be a period of reflection after Mass, followed by a time of reflection and then a Rosary at St. Peter’s Church.

Bishop Holley will say Mass at the National Shrine of St. Martin de Porres and help lead a “Walk of Faith” from St. Peter’s Church to the National Civil Rights Museum in time for the program and the moment of silence.

The U.S. bishops’ administrative committee offered Catholics questions for reflection.

“What are we being asked to do for the sake of our brother or sister who still suffers under the weight of racism? Where could God use our efforts to help change the hearts of those who harbor racist thoughts or engage in racist actions?” the bishops asked.

They said inspiration can be found in King’s steadfastness in nonviolent resistance, “even in the face of years of ridicule, threats and violence for the cause of justice.”

“Dr. King came to Memphis to support underpaid and exploited African-American sanitation workers and arrived on a plane that was under a bomb threat. He felt God had called him to solidarity with his brothers and sisters in need,” the bishops said.

They cited King’s final speech the night before he was killed, in which he noted the threats against him and voiced his preference for a long life.

“But more important to him, he said, was his desire to simply do the will of God,” the bishops said.

Their statement cited the Gospel of John: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

James Earl Ray, a small-time criminal with a prison record and a history of hatred for African-Americans and King in particular, pleaded guilty to the 1968 assassination, then recanted and claimed he was a peripheral figure in a broader conspiracy. A congressional committee concluded in 1978 that Ray was the killer, although others might have been involved, Ray’s 1998 New York Times obituary said.

“Our faith urges us to be courageous, to risk something of ourselves, in defending the dignity of our neighbor, who is made in the image of God,” the bishops continued. “Pope Francis reminds us often that we must never sit on the sidelines in the face of great evil or extreme need, even when danger surrounds us.”

“We can best honor Dr. Martin Luther King and preserve his legacy by boldly asking God — today and always — to deepen our own commitment to follow his will wherever it leads in the cause of promoting justice.”

The bishops noted the many events put on by The King Center this year, listed at its website

Fifty years ago, on the day after King was killed, Pope Paul VI expressed remorse during his Angelus address, saying that the civil-rights leader was “a Christian prophet for racial integration.”