Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This post was written January 15 by Rafael Pozos for www.21stcenturycatholic.net. It is reprinted here with permission on the national holiday in honor of Dr. King’s birthday.
Today would have been the 80th birthday of one of the greatest Americans and also one of its own great popular theologians, the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This day caused me to reflect on this great American prophet and the impact he had on all of our society – including American Roman Catholics. It’s true he was a Baptist Minister, and a consummate rhetorician – all very valuable when one is a reform Christian clergyman – but what he had to say, and said very consistently are things that very much agree with current Roman Catholic social teaching and they both draw from the common ancient Christian tradition they share.
In terms of the place of the speech in American history, it came during the famous march on Washington DC in the summer of 1963 – only months prior to the Kennedy assassination and right around the same time as the Second Vatican Council was called. Prior to that, King had successfully lead the effort to desegregate the busses in Montgomery Alabama, was one of the founding members of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and wrote a book about the Montgomery experience entitled Stride Twoard Freedom:the Montgomery Story among other things. Just prior to the march on Washington, he had been incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama, where he had been leading a peaceful protest which had been met by attack dogs and fire hoses – all in plain view of the media – including the newly emerging television and what would become later the 24 hour news cycle.
Just as powerful as the images from Birmingham were in terms of starting to get the American public on the side of civil rights, was the setting for this key speech. It took place on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, a massive temple style monument to President Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was the first federal step to attempt to free the slaves in the US. In front of the statue of Lincoln, resplendent with his writing in the inner sanctum of the monument was where King gave the speech – which is really in a lot of ways more sermon than speech.
In this sermon, he exhorts us, using references from Amos and Isaiah to make his point. Starting with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation, he mentions that despite it, black people still were not free 100 years later. Comparing the promise of liberty as articulated in our Constitution to a bad check, with insufficient funds, he then fundamentally rejects it in very eloquent and prophetic language which he closes with a reference from the book of Amos “….we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’(Amos 5:24)”
While King was quoting this in English, the Hebrew of this passage from Amos is far more powerful “Let judgment roll like water, and uprightness like a wadi” the context of this passage is the doom of Israel. A wadi is a flood valley which is dry most of the year. However when it rains, massive flash floods occur in the valley and take out everything in sight – often with no warning. A professor of mine, Fr. John Endres SJ, who studied in Israel said that he would hear of cases where somebody had been hiking in a wadi and the flood came on so fast and so massive that they couldn’t get away and drowned, with the body being found days later washed up somewhere. While King may not have seen this passage in Hebrew nor totally known how destructive a wadi flood can be, he would have known that this passage came during a doom sequence for Israel… an ominous oracle for those who would oppose the civil rights movement.
After this, he transitions to the great dream he has, which nearly every American student is exposed to at least once in school. Deeply rooted in not just Christian tradition but also in our Declaration of Independence, which he calls our “creed”, it is a dream of equality and equal opportunity for all. This is such a radical shift that he quotes Isaiah 40:4-5 in making his point. “ I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” He said, and followed it up by quoting lyrics of our first national anthem, saying “let freedom ring” In a series of exhortations starting with “let freedom ring”, he goes all over the country from north to west.
Even more powerfully, he continues to call for freedom in former slave territory in the southeastern United States. “But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia” he starts. Stone Mountain is significant because it was the main rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacy terror organization that is still active today which also conducts terror operations against Catholics. This on top of calling for freedom in Tennessee and Mississippi, one of the worst states for segregation further reinforces his point. He then closes the sermon by looking forward to the day when everybody can join together and sing free at last. A bold and prophetic statement of faith in America and in God’s preference for the poor and disadvantaged – all things that most believers of all confessions of Christianity can get behind.
Sadly, King was gunned down by James Earl Ray in 1968 – a very bad year for the United States. Before the assassination, he said in a speech organizing sanitation workers in Memphis, TN:
Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And’ He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not any fearing man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
It ended up being prophetic because the next day, he was dead. He was one of many martyrs for equality and for Christianity in general. He had a vision, a dream, and he paid the ultimate price for it just as our Catholic Latin American martyrs including Archbishop Oscar Romero and Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J. did for similar ideals.
Last November, part of Dr. King’s dream came true when for some the unthinkable happened. Barack Hussein Obama, a black Christian whose name sounds Muslim, was elected President of the United States. On Tuesday, the day after the United States observes the federal holiday commemorating his birth, he will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Only in a country inspired by Dr King’s dream could something like this happen. In his policies, Obama will continue to advance King’s ideals. All of which we as American Catholic Christians we can agree on and support so we can all sing in the end “Free at last!”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbUtL_0vAJk – You Tube’s recording of the full version of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech.