On September 24, 2015, when Pope Francis addressed the United States Congress, he referenced the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., describing him as a role model for the politicians and citizens listening to the address. The pope’s remarks highlight the role of the common good in policy deliberations, the importance of hope, and the place of faith in U.S. public discourse.
Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.
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….
We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. 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.
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King tomorrow, and as preparations are underway for the inauguration of President-Elect Trump (who just this week criticized Rep. John Lewis via embarrassingly ignorant tweets — “all talk talk talk”), it is worth reflecting on how we got here and how Dr. King can continue to inspire our efforts to make our country more just today.
I. Gentle Reminders of White Supremacy in Public Policy and U.S. Law: A Very Brief Overview[i]
When the Declaration of Independence (1776) declared that “all men are created equal,” it didn’t really mean all men. It declared white landowners to be free and equal. The U.S. Constitution (1787) legitimated white supremacy. It was not until the 13th Amendment (1865) that slavery was abolished. When slavery was abolished, no reparations were given to formerly enslaved persons. Instead, the federal government paid former slave masters for the loss of their human property.
The 1790 Naturalization Act welcomed white European immigrants while the Alien Land laws kept Asian immigrants from ownership and allocated farm land to white growers.
The 1830 Indian Removal Act, carried out by the white U.S. Army, violently “relocated” Creeks and Cherokee to the Mississippi River’s western shores. White settlers then occupied lands stolen from Native peoples. The 1862 Homestead Act solidified in public policy the reality that had already existed in practice.
The Supreme Court Decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) made it legal to segregate schools and other facets of everyday life – encoding “separate but equal” into U.S. law.
The 1935 Social Security Act guaranteed a retirement income for U.S. workers but excluded millions of people of color. Domestic workers and agricultural workers (75% of the black labor force at the time) were excluded. The Wagner Act of 1935 permitted labor unions to exclude African Americans from union membership.
II. Dr. King’s Response
Dr. King did not shy away from reminding American Christians about this complex history. But neither did he believe that people of color were destined to remain unequal in U.S. society. He had faith that if people worked together, animated by love and grounded in hope, they could transform unjust social structures. He often drew on the Scriptures, as when he invoked the Exodus narrative as a motif of liberation:
“When we are in the darkness of some oppressive Egypt, God is a light unto our path.” (Strength to Love, 84).
Dr. King challenged Christians in his own day, especially white affluent ones, to ask themselves whose side they were really on. In his hermeneutics of liberation, Dr. King asked the church to take sides:
“One of the shameful tragedies of history is that the very institution that should remove man from the midnight of racial segregation participates in created and perpetuating the midnight… In many instances the church has so aligned itself with the privileged classes and so defended the status quo that it has been unwilling to answer the knock at midnight.” (Strength to Love, 59)
“Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and yet is not concerned with the economic and social conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is the kind the Marxist describes as ‘an opiate of the people.” (Strength to Love, 104)
III. What are you called to do to make racial justice a reality?
No one can end racism alone. No one can end income inequality all by oneself. The issues we face in 2017 are in many ways different than what Dr. King addressed in the 1960s. But so much of what he said continues to ring true for those of us who feel called to be peacemakers and social justice advocates in our own day. What should we do? Dr. King would likely encourage us to prayer, church participation, Scripture study, and community organizing. We must seek God’s true peace within ourselves, and then radiate that peace to those whom we meet. Join social movements. Protest. Call your representatives in Washington. Become engaged. And for someone who witnessed police brutality, malicious theology, and the suffering of innocents, Dr. King reminds us that faith in God can enable us “to deal creatively with shattered dreams.” (Strength to Love, 96) Lasting change takes time to institutionalize. In the meantime, Dr. King reminds readers to have courage:
“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations; cowardice is a submissive surrender to circumstance. Courage breeds creative self-affirmation; cowardice produces destructive self-abnegation…” (Strength to Love, 124)
Of course more work remains to be done so that Dr. King’s dreams may be realized. Some progress has been made. To me, it feels like in the past ten years we have take great strides forward, only to be forced to retreat some steps. But let Dr. King’s faith be our own as we build resilience and determination in the days ahead:
“God is at work in his universe. He is not outside the world looking in with a sort of cold indifference. Here on all the roads of life, he is striving in our striving.” (Strength to Love, 83)
[i] Summarizing material from Dwight Hopkins, Jennifer Harvey, Karin Case, and Robin Hawley Gorsline, Disrupting White Supremacy from Within (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2004), vii-31. See also Bryna Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010); Laurie Cassidy and Alex Mikulich, eds., Interrupting White Privilege (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2007), 2; Peggy McIntosh, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom (July 1989): 11-12; http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/racial-wealth-gaps-great-recession/; http://usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/african-american/brothers-and-sisters-to-us.cfm