Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspires us to work for equality Print
Seeing with Jesus' Eyes
Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018 -- 12:00 AM

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an American federal holiday that marks his birthday, observed this year on January 15.

In his speech to Congress in September of 2015, Pope Francis lifted up four Americans who worked for social justice. Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were Catholics. Abraham Lincoln and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were not Catholics.

Dr. King was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law.

The campaign for a federal holiday honoring Dr. King began soon after his assassination in 1968. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983. It was first observed three years later. It was officially observed in all 50 states in 2000.

'I Have a Dream' speech

In his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. King chose not to directly attack America for her failings to live out the Declaration of Independence; instead, he challenged Americans to live out the self-evident truths expressed in the Declaration.

In his speech he declared, "I have a dream that someday America will rise up and live out the meaning of its creed that all men (and women) are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness."

Inequality in America

For years, Americans tolerated legalized slavery. To abolish slavery, a bloody civil war was fought.

Even after the emancipation of slaves, African Americans were often denied their rights through unjust laws, customs, and policies. Protest against these laws, practices, and customs led to the Civil Rights Movement.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., presumably in hopes of silencing him.

Equality in schools

Part of Dr. King's dream was for equality in public education. In the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court established as law separate but equal facilities for black and white students in public schools.

In 1954, in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the U. S. Supreme Court stated that separate but equal facilities are inherently unequal. The unanimous (9-0) decision declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.

On December 15, 1956, in an address to the National Committee for Rural Schools, Dr. King reflected on the importance of the decision saying, ''To all men of good will, this decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity.''

To me, the decision somewhat reflects Galatians 3:26-28, "For through faith, you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself in Christ. In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave not free person, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus."

Although the decision's mandate to dismantle segregated public schools initially faced massive resistance across the South, the ruling provided irresistible moral authority to the drive for legal equality that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts a decade later.

Challenges remain

Challenges to implementing Brown v. Board of Education remain, but tremendous progress has been made. These challenges add greater urgency to implementing the decision's broader goal of ensuring all young people the opportunity to develop their talents.

Each new year invites us to live out the meaning of our beautiful Catholic faith in deeper ways in our home, community, and country. Let us pray for the courage and perseverance to continue to work for social justice and equality as Dr. King and countless others have done.

Fr. Donald Lange is a pastor emeritus in the Diocese of Madison.