“Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare” (Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, p. 272).
In his address to Congress in September of 2015, Pope Francis reminded us of the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King for the fabric of American life.
“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” (Pope Francis, “Address of the Holy Father to the Joint Session of the United States Congress,” September 24, 2015).
“A community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life” – this vision of the peaceable society described by Pope Francis is no idle fancy. It begins from a harsh reality, a reality that speaks of Dr. King’s day and our own present situation. We are a community slowly disintegrating into particular interests, or perhaps one that has always been so but is now painfully aware of our shortcomings. How do we veer away from such a wild and dangerous place? One sure way is by following the path laid by heroes of old, not fairytale heroes but real ones, men and women who acted towards justice and peace with great personal cost to themselves and their families. Dr. King has always been one such hero for me personally, for a multitude of dreamers, and, since 1983, formally for our nation.
I was twelve when James Earl Ray shot Dr. King on the balcony of his hotel room. My oldest brother came home the week before telling us about the prophetic words of his professor at Saint Mary’s College who predicted the assassination because of Dr. King’s widening the scope of the struggle to embrace the rights of labor. That same brother took me to the Roxie Theater in Oakland within the year to see a documentary put together in honor of the fallen hero. I cried at that movie, as I had done watching the funeral on t.v. These boyhood memories are but early steps in a long, almost fifty-year walk, far from completed, toward living beyond racism and blithe privilege. That walk has brought me to a vantage point where a community disintegrating into private interest groups and old and new hatreds is unacceptable. The memory of Dr. King and the thousands of people who worked in solidarity with him enlivens the hope that puts heart and hands into action.
President Reagan, when signing the national holiday into law said the following about Dr. King.
“In his own life’s example, he symbolized what was right about America, what was noblest and best, what human beings have pursued since the beginning of history. He loved unconditionally. He was in constant pursuit of truth, and when he discovered it, he embraced it. His nonviolent campaigns brought about redemption, reconciliation, and justice. He taught us that only peaceful means can bring about peaceful ends, that our goal was to create the love community” (Ronald Reagan: “Remarks on Signing the Bill Making the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a National Holiday,” November 2, 1983. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=40708).
The fact that it took seventeen years for all of the fifty states to accept and honor the national holiday is an eloquent witness that a just society hangs ever in the balance. To honor Dr. King and what is best about America let us do our part to build up the community of love at our College.
Let us who remember Dr. King share our memories and the ways in which his work helped fashioned our better selves. Let those who are too young to have known him ask their elders for their memories. Let old and young share their hope for justice and peace by working together toward those life-giving goals with purpose and without counting the cost.