A Glimmer of Light in a Very Bleak Decade – A Consideration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

011815It is difficult to describe the decade of the 1960s as anything but a near complete disaster for this country, Western culture, and the world. Like a tsunami that sweeps in and out in successive waves destroying and reworking the whole landscape and setting loose subsequent disasters, the 1960s was a disastrous series of revolutions whose destructive aftermath is now breeding disease, broken families, addiction, sexual confusion, and social chaos. The sexual revolution, the revolution against authority and tradition, the promotion of contraceptive drugs and practices, the further unleashing of pornography, the drug revolution and widespread use of mind-altering drugs (think Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury, etc.), increasing and public support for abortion (leading to 1973 Roe v. Wade), radical feminism, and no-fault divorce have spewed their toxic fumes and waste everywhere. It was a decade of assassinations, war, controversy, social chaos, and decay. Urban centers rotted in the aftermath of riots and the rush to the suburbs.

In the Church, too, the venomous culture extended its stingers. A council that began in hope gave way in its aftermath to a hermeneutic of discontinuity, even rupture and iconoclasm. Bitter divisions and debates were set loose in the Church in 1968 over contraception and many other matters. There was an exodus of priests and religious and an emptying of the seminaries and novitiates. It is hard to imagine a worse period culturally than the 1960s.

Perhaps the solitary boast of that tainted decade was the Civil Rights Movement.

On this weekend and Monday holiday when we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I often write of him with admiration. And usually I get pushback. Often it is from those with whom I have 98% agreement on other issues. I suspect this is because it is hard to separate Dr. King and his legacy from the politics then, but especially now. Others, too, express concerns that Dr. King had personal shortcomings. More on this in a moment.

But first let’s recall the context of the time in which he lived. Many of us look back with a certain fondness on the 1950s and, even though we acknowledge its imperfections and can recognize the seeds of trouble, can still admire its orderliness and the fact that families were still intact and things seemed more decent somehow. And in many ways they were. But to Blacks, to African-Americans, the 1950s and before were troubled years indeed.

I have served in the Black community for most of my 25 years as a priest and I have heard the stories, stories told not usually with bitterness, but surely with pain. Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation across the South and infecting even many Northern cities, had begun around 1900 and were still in rather full force much of the way through the 1950s. Many who are older can say they remember seeing the “Whites only” and “Colored waiting room” signs. Imagine the dismay when the man you looked up to and called your father was called “Boy” and your mother, whom you thought of in the most affectionate way, had to go “uptown” to U Street or Harlem to the Negro hospital to give birth to your baby brother because she was somehow too low-class to give birth in the neighborhood hospital.

None of this is that long ago. Most of my older parishioners remember the local theater they could not attend, the local school that was not for them, the water fountain that said, in effect, “not for you.” Many of us “White folks” regarded the recent troubles in Ferguson and elsewhere with skepticism. “Oh come on, get over it. All that stuff was a long time ago … No one is targeting you.” But even if there is a sensitivity that is too tender, you don’t just turn off years of experience. Trauma has a way of echoing down through the years. It is very hard for us to walk in African-American shoes, and though we may wish healing went quicker, it usually does not.

Looking back to the 1950s and before, there has to be for all of us a certain shock as we consider what things were like. How could we have been so foolish, so obtuse, so just plain mean? What on earth were we thinking? “Whites only? … Colored drinking fountain? … Are you insane?” But it wasn’t that long ago. I can only pray that we will experience the same shock in years to come when we look back and consider that we actually killed babies in the womb by the tens of millions. “How could we have been so cruel, so lost, so confused and selfish as a culture that we permitted this, speaking of it as a ‘right,’ and even pressuring mothers to abort?”

In was in the midst of the insanity of segregation, racism, exclusion, incompressible fear, and hatred that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders like him stepped forward. And any of us who would like to criticize him should remember the context of those years and consider that the Civil Rights Movement was the solitary boast of the tainted 1960s. While almost every other movement of that era indulged either selfishness or some sort of disorder and rejection of biblical teaching, the Civil Rights Movement emerged from a profound sense of biblical justice and an insistence that God was not to be mocked nor His justice ignored. Dr. King and many others (though not all, such as violent radicals) drew deeply from the font of Scripture and  held our hypocrisy before us in the best of the tradition of biblical prophets.

Now I was not born yesterday and I can hear the gears turning in some (not all) of your minds. I have fielded many comments over the years, whenever I write of Dr. King with admiration. Permit me to address a few of the objections here.

1. What about the reports that Dr. King was a womanizer and that soon, when FBI files are released, this will all come to light? Well, there are a lot of rumors, but for now they are hearsay and we ought not pass on hearsay. But let us even assume for a moment that some of the rumors prove to be true. God has often used sinful and imperfect men to proclaim His Word and lead His people. Noah was a drinker; Lot pitched his tent toward Sodom; Abraham pimped his wife out and slept with his slave girl; Jacob was a schemer and usurper; Moses was a murderer; Jephte killed his own daughter; David was an adulterer and a murderer; Solomon had a thousand wives … need I go on? None of this is to approve of wrongdoing but simply to note that if God waited for perfect prophets and leaders, we wouldn’t have any. In honoring Dr. King, we need not say that he was a perfect man. We honor what was best in him and what he did to call us out of our hypocrisy.

2. There are reports that he was a Communist. Again, these are rumors, hearsay. Be careful. Here, too, recall that Jeremiah, Stephen, and Jesus were all accused of being unpatriotic because they prophesied doom to the nation if there was not repentance. If Dr. King was in fact a communist, he was a lousy communist, since he gave strength to our country by uniting us and helping to end our pointless and foolish divisions. A nation that is divided cannot stand. But if we can find greater unity, then our nation is strengthened. This was not the goal of the communists, and certain not the goal of the Russians.

3. You say he was a prophet but in so doing you misuse the term, which applies only to biblical prophets. Well, terms can be used in a strict sense and in a wider sense. In the strict sense, the term prophet refers only to those who are listed in the Bible. In that very strict sense, the “Office of Prophet” died with John the Baptist. But the last time I checked, all the baptized receive the office of prophet as well. And of course the word “prophet” is being used here in a wider sense, but a true one nonetheless. You, dear reader, and I are supposed to be prophets even though we are living long after John the Baptist. I have been able to verify that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was baptized. As such, he attains to the office of prophet by that fact. He also well imitated the biblical prophets, who knew how to draw from God’s word and denounce sin and injustice.

4. He is not Catholic and therefore we should not treat him like a saint or mention him in our Masses. He is not a canonized saint and no one should pretend that he is. Yet his legacy is still to be honored and the necessary change he effected is to be reverenced.

5. This is all just a bunch of “political correctness” (PC) and you, Fr. Pope, are naïve. I don’t come to your blog to hear PC. Well OK, I don’t like PC either. But there is more here than that, for the reasons I’ve stated above. But even if you are right (and I don’t say that you are), even a broken clock is right twice a day. Recently, the PC crowd expressed outrage at the murders of Islamic terrorists in France. They were right, even if they are usually an irritating crowd.

6. This whole racism thing has become an industry and honoring King just fuels it. OK, but don’t blame King for things that happened after he died. I don’t know what King would think of the likes of Al Sharpton, et. al. But neither do you. And don’t tell me that Dr. King wasn’t fighting an obnoxious thing at that time, as detailed above. He found a good fight and got into it at great personal cost. Honoring him doesn’t mean we affirm everything the movement later became or is now.

7. Most Black wounds today are self-inflicted. When will Black leaders address the holocaust of abortion and Black-on-Black violence? This Dr. King holiday is a charade in the face of all that. Yes, it sounds like we need another Dr. King today. It is not clear where King would stand on abortion today. Perhaps if he had lived, things would be different. Who knows? His niece thinks he would be pro-life. But we cannot hold a man responsible for errors that came after he died. Certainly King did stand foursquare against any violence and may well have spoken forcefully against Black-on-Black violence as he did in his day, denouncing all movements that used violent means.

Ok, enough. But please, when it comes to these sorts of things, we must all be willing to make distinctions and give honor where it is due. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought against real and obnoxious realities in his day, and fought against them knowing full well he might get killed for it. And he was. He left this nation in a better condition than he found it in terms of race relations.

Yes, the 1960s was an awful decade. But there was one real light that shone in that period and that was the Civil Rights Movement. We have Dr. King, among others (including Catholic religious and clergy), to thank for that. May Dr. King rest in peace and may we honor his legacy by continuing to stand up against all injustice, especially the injustice that refuses to accord others their rights before God to life with equal dignity.

God’s truth will win. How long will it take? Not long. Fellow cultural warriors take heart; God will win.

16 Replies to “A Glimmer of Light in a Very Bleak Decade – A Consideration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

  1. Monsignor Pope – another very thoughtful piece. I really admire your writing because you clearly examine both sides of the argument and are willing to address the arguments of the other side in a thoughtful way. Not all bloggers do this – for example I recently read a blog from a Catholic author who was criticizing the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he didn’t have any sort of consideration of the arguments in favor of doing this. He didn’t attempt to consider how many soldiers and civilians would’ve died in a ground invasion of Japan. He didn’t consider whether a U.S. President could’ve made a decision which would’ve cost the lives of more U.S. soldiers in exchange for fewer deaths of the enemy, given that the enemy had started the conflict.

    I’ve often wondered about Dr. King myself so I’m glad you wrote this piece. Having been wounded very deeply by my spouse’s infidelity, it is so hard for me to consider anyone to be great who’s done such a thing – this would include President Kennedy as well. I’ve also thought similar things about today’s civil rights movement as you’ve mentioned here. It seems like modern civil rights leaders refuse to take any responsibility for problems within the black community. Just the fact that Ferguson is an issue at all amazes me, given that the so called victim robbed a convenience store, was high on drugs, and then attacked the cop who ultimately had to shoot him in self defense. However, as you say, these things took place after Dr. King. In the early days the things the Civil Rights movement argued for were justified and noble things.

    Anyway, just wanted to give you kudos on another great piece. I will continue to read your blogs as often as I can.

  2. In his final sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968, the day before he was assassinated Dr. King said this: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; say that I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter… I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

  3. This post speaks for me. It goes through the various objections I’ve had to think through over the years as I held some of those objections. But, I’m going to call it a “low information” period, where I did not sufficiently think through the objections well enough. Let’s face it, those are cookie-cutter objections often recycled as quickly as a bag of returnable bottles – without much thought.

    I can’t add anything to your responses, but perhaps some thoughts that got me to where I am on Dr King today.

    1) I don’t know how anyone can take an honest look at how black people were treated in the King era and not see how wrong it was, and how dangerous it was to fight it. I still cry when seeing images if young black teens being taunted just trying to go to school. I’m horrified at other things that took place, often at the hands of fellow Christians.

    2) King chose to fight it with peaceful, non-violent ways, and it was effective.

    3) The Civil Rights Movement of today is not what it once was. Therefore, I can’t attribute to him, what people do today in it’s name. I believe there are still racial issues to work through, but I also believe some today are exploiting the CRM. King is not responsible for that.

    4) On any infidelities or imperfections King may have had: Let those without sin cast the first stone. There are few, if any, leaders who didn’t succumb to human fallen nature in a variety of ways. A question we might ask ourselves is if we are prepared to examine the life of every white man whose legacy we honor the way we do King’s.

    5) I know in some places Dr King has been elevated to the status of a saint, with images containing halos and the like. In the Catholic sphere, this is inappropriate. We can honor what someone has done without canonizing them. Priests need to ensure well meaning people understand heroic actions from a life with heroic virtue.

    Finally, I have to say that I cannot look into the eyes of older black people in America and not wonder how deep their wounds are. I marvel at the grace many have in spite of their experiences. Some remain bitter; others have seen that blaming this generation for the sins of others gets all of us nowhere. In this same light, I cannot attribute to Dr King what some have done in the CRM.

    One day a co-worker blew up at me and accused me of racism because I used a word I didn’t know could be taken as racist. I later learned some feel it is; others don’t. I pulled him aside that day and explained to him that I was born in an all white neighborhood, went to all white schools, attended an all white parish, and shopped in stores near me which had almost all white clients. Such was life for many in metro-Detroit. I told him there wasn’t a racist bone in my body, but I might have ignorances that can be resolved by talking about them with me rather than making angry presumptions. He relaxed and we became good friends, learning a lot from one another over the years. This is how we need to move forward. I think Dr King would want it that way.

  4. This is a very accurate appraisal of the 1950.s and 60,s. I agree that Dr Martin Luther King was a shining light in a very dark time. I am sure he is enjoying the reward of his faithfulness. And yes, I wish his example would be better followed among some of those he struggled to set free.

  5. The tragedy about Dr. Rev. King is not any of his shortcomings but, rather, that his legacy is both misinterpreted and unfulfilled. Dr. Rev. King had an understanding of injustice and inequality very close to elements of Catholic social teaching. He knew that racial injustice (a weak term for unquantifiable suffering and violence) was bred from economic injustice. He knew that power held by and exercised for a few was the real issue. Many of his speeches and policy positions were based on this analysis. So it is a shame that many interpret him solely as an advocate for the disposed black community; when, in fact, he was an advocate for us all. In a world where 1% of the population holds almost 50% of the wealth, and many working people struggle to meet basic needs, Dr. Rev. King’s promised land is still sadly but a dream. All Catholics should view him as a worthy soldier in our struggle to build the Lord’s kingdom on earth.

  6. Dr King died before I was born. I cannot speak with authority to anything he did or may have done. But that’s not the point. We know be stood up for Civil Rights and gave his life for it. Do his sins, whatever they may be, change that fact?


    It is not anyone’s place to judge him. What he believed, mistakes he made, it does not matter.

    He stood up against oppression and died for his convictions. Who among us has done the same?

  7. My first temporary job in USA, was making deli in a sandwich store. Being an Asian, I was confronted by a tall, burly white man in 70’s and brusquely asked me why I am here and arrogantly told me to learn English. ‘I beg your indulgence, Sir, please forgive me for having offended you in any manner or by the color of my skin,’ was the reply I gave him. Immediately, he took his sandwich and left. He did not know that my uncle died in a Japanese prison because he fought side by side with the Americans, he did not know that my father-in-law took cared of twenty or more U.S. Army officers during WWII in the mountains of Pinatubo, he did not know that my nephews are in the US Navy serving as officers. He did not know that I am a professional in our country and taught in a college. Bigotry is truly a terrible sin of mankind. I thank GOD for those who fought against it. Thank you, Rev. Martin Luther King. Thank you, Monsignor for this piece. GOD Bless you. YHWH SHALOM!

  8. My parents had me baptized in the 1960’s. I boast of the generosity they showed to me by doing that.

  9. My first ever reply to a blog! Thanks Msgr. Pope, this was a beautifully balanced piece. You honor Dr. King and yourself by your words. You’re right, we all owe Dr. King a debt of gratitude for being a light amidst the darkness. It’s good to remember that racism is a disease of the heart not the skin; it existed and still exists because hearts made for love are used for a lesser purpose. Dr. King understood that admirably. Maranatha!

  10. My hope and prayer is that ALL RACISM AND MISTRUST BY BOTH BLACK AND WHITE WILL BE ABOLISHED and Dr. King’s dream of A totally integrated society will become A reality. WE MUST,MUST WORK
    TOWARD THAT END. We must all swim together or we will all sink together. “NUFF” SAID.

    1. If you think Msgr. Pope tries to be politically correct, you are sadly mistaken, and you certainly can’t be a regular reader of his blog!

  11. The Spirit lifting comment of today on Praise 106.5 FM in NW Washington; “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

  12. Yes dr.king truly was a prophet in the same sense as the prophets of the Old Testament. Not just for people of color but for all people.i was to young at that time but I have read about his life.just as the prophets of the Old Testament showing people their sinfulness and pointing them back to GOD.i just found your post and read it for the first time.your posts point us to our LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST.

Comments are closed.