It 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.