Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy: What are we doing?

You are a member of the U.S. bishops’ Administrative Committee, which last week issued a statement on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. What did the committee say about Dr. King’s legacy?

One of the major things the bishops asked was this: Fifty years after Dr. King’s assassination, are we as a nation “doing all we can to build the culture of love, respect and peace to which the Gospel calls us? 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 50th anniversary of his assassination “gives us an important moment to draw inspiration from the way in which Dr. King remained undeterred in his principle of nonviolent resistance, even in the face of years of ridicule, threats and violence for the cause of justice.”

Dr. King’s use of nonviolence and civil disobedience has even drawn the attention of Pope Francis and the Vatican.

Yes. Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, who is the Vatican’s observer to the United Nations, said Dr. King relied on two guiding principles that are so rare in today’s almost toxic political environment: nonviolence and universal fraternity. Those are the same Christian-inspired principles that Pope Francis has offered to the world. Archbishop Jurkovic said nonviolence is a principle that has become somewhat challenging today in the face of the many violent actions that surround us. He said the principle of universal fraternity means that we must consider “all people as beneficiaries of the same brotherhood.” These are principles that must be promoted by major world leaders. The archbishop said: “Pope Francis does it – he does it in a splendid way – and everyone recognizes the role he has gained in such a short time. The pope believes that the only future worthy of the human person is one that includes everyone.” Universal fraternity is a principle Dr. King died for, and we must pursue and defend this vision. The archbishop added, “We can all be happy, but this only comes if all are included, from the last one to the most privileged, and vice versa.”

What have the bishops said about the strategies Dr. King employed?

Dr. King really was inspired by his Christian beliefs and by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. He came to Memphis in 1968 under a cloud of threats. He was coming to town to advocate for higher wages for African-American sanitation workers. He arrived on a plane that was under a bomb threat. The committee said, “In his final speech on the night before he died, Dr. King openly referenced the many threats against him, and made clear that he would love to live a long life. But more important to him, he said, was his desire to simply do the will of God.” We are often asked to take risks in defending the dignity of our neighbor – who is made in God’s image and likeness – and Dr. King did exactly that. Pope Francis frequently reminds us that we must never “sit on the sidelines in the face of great evil or extreme need, even when danger surrounds us.” We also know what Jesus has told us in the Gospel of St. John: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori also wrote a recent pastoral letter on Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence. As most people know, Baltimore was beset by riots three years ago following the death of an African-American who died from injuries he sustained while in police custody. What did you take away from Archbishop Lori’s pastoral?

One of the major thrusts is that Dr. King’s principles do not apply “only to troubled urban neighborhoods or solely to our African-American brothers and sisters.” In recognizing that every community experiences domestic violence, drug abuse and other social ills, and that immigrants face discrimination, hatred, denied opportunities and unjust deportation, he wrote, “Violence, racism and a host of social problems exist in different forms and degrees throughout our suburban and rural areas as well. Think of how vitriolic and coarse public rhetoric has become in politics and the media, a coarseness that often spills over into private conversation. Instead of trying peacefully to reach the common ground of understanding, people far too often and far too quickly resort to abusive language. They may not kill their neighbors with bullets, but they do ‘kill’ them with words and gestures of disrespect.” I have spoken often recently about how “unfiltered thoughts slice hearts.” Vicious words can be used as blunt instruments to attack and harm others, and that is not the way of Jesus nor the way of nonviolence.

What can Catholics in the Archdiocese of New Orleans do to foster Dr. King’s legacy?

We, the local church, have done much to foster unity and meet social needs. Our education system and our network of social services through Catholic Charities have served the common good and promoted fraternity. We need to continue to find ways to make our educational system – and the Christian formation it provides to our youth – more accessible and affordable. We need to advocate for affordable housing and for better-paying jobs for families. We need to examine what we are doing to promote fraternity. Our Office of Racial Harmony has done amazing work among the parishes to bring people of all ethnic groups together to discuss the sins of racism and violence. It is slow work; it is necessary work; it is God’s work, in which we all share. That is the legacy of Dr. King.

Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to clarionherald@clarionherald.org.

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