During his recent speech to Congress on September 24, Pope Francis paid special tribute to the contributions of four great Americans – two Catholics, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and two non-Catholics, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In this final installment, we examine the life and legacy of the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most important African-American leaders in U.S. history and one of the iconic figures of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. King's fight against discrimination and segregation changed American history and gave hope to millions of a future of equality.
One of the most inspiring moments of King's life was the August 28, 1963, March on Washington, and his "I Have a Dream" speech, where he stated, "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Pope Francis noted the importance of King's dream, one that continues to inspire Americans and people from around the world to this day:
"Here too I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his “dream” of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of “dreams”. Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people."
King's call for racial equality is echoed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity." (CCC 1934).
In his remarks, Pope Francis noted that King's message of equality is rooted in the Gospel passage of the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).
As the Holy Father stated:
"This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development."
The struggle for equality often places us in conflict with policies or laws that seem to contradict this Gospel message. Determining how to respond can be a great challenge. In his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King eloquently conveyed his approach to resolving this conflict. His answer was rooted in the teaching of St. Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all," as well as the guidance of St. Thomas Aquinas:
"Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? 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 and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."
Recent events demonstrate that we still have much work to do to achieve the racial equality of which King dreamed. It is clear that the wounds and effects of slavery and segregation remain enormous challenges facing our country, its citizens, and its policymakers.
Moreover, other forms of inequality continue to be problems that degrade the dignity of man. As the Catechism states, "There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women…Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace." (CCC 1938).
Yet, while the struggle began by Dr. Martin Luther King and others continues, Pope Francis reminds us not to lose hope: "Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this."