As the nation celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 16, both personal conversion and action are needed to build what the slain civil rights leader called "the beloved community," said Catholic clergy and lay leaders.

Observed on the third Monday of January, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day federal holiday – which was created after a 32-year-campaign – commemorates the life and work of King, a Baptist minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner who spearheaded the U.S. civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. He was just 39 years old.

Profoundly influenced by the non-violent approach of Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King led campaigns to end legal segregation of Black Americans in the U.S. in the face of at-times violent opposition. Among the most celebrated of these efforts were the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott; the 1963 March on Washington, which drew more than 200,000 demonstrators; and the 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, to that state's capital in Montgomery.

Dr. King's sermons, speeches and texts – which drew on his extensive theological training – "wove in Scripture (passages) and galvanized listeners" to action, Father Stephen Thorne, a consultant and special projects coordinator for the National Black Catholic Congress, told OSV News.

Dr. King's ability "to move from altar to street" was rooted in an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ, said Father Thorne.

"We forget the 'Reverend' part of Dr. King," said Father Thorne. "His faith really led him to do what he did. … I don't think he could have done that without an awareness of the presence of Jesus Christ."

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a Jan. 13 statement that Catholics, in addition to honoring Dr. King, "must act to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, access to affordable housing and healthcare, and economic opportunities."

"Remembering Dr. King was guided first by his faith also challenges us to personal conversion," he said, adding that "unjust structures exist because personal sin persists."

The archbishop quoted the late Pope Benedict XVI, who said, "To renew the Church in every age, God raises up saints, who themselves have been renewed by God and are in contact with God."

He pointed to the ongoing sainthood causes of six Black Catholic men and women as models of inspiration for Catholics today: Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1776-1853), a formerly enslaved man who became an entrepreneur and philanthropist; Servant of God Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange (1784-1882), foundress of the Oblate Sisters of Providence; Venerable Henriette Delille (1813-1862), foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family; Servant of God Julia Greeley (born between 1833 and 1848; died 1918), a formerly enslaved woman who promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990), a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who championed the richness of Black spirituality in the Catholic Church; and Venerable Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), who was born under slavery and became the first publicly-known Black Roman Catholic priest in the U.S.

According to the Black Catholic Messenger, this year more than 75 Catholic events, both in-person and virtual, are being held to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in nearly 50 U.S. cities.

The Knights of Peter Claver, a family-based, historically Black Catholic fraternal order, released a statement for Martin Luther King Jr. Day that blended calls to both prayer and engagement with "projects and programs aimed at unjust systems – not just the criminal justice system, but any societal system where inequities and injustices exist."

The statement concluded with a prayer for "A New Day of Justice and Brotherhood and Peace," one on which "the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy."

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News.