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home : from the bishop : from the bishop February 21, 2019

A message from Bishop O'Connell: To truly honor Dr. King, we, too, need to make a difference
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is pictured in an undated file photo. The nation honors the legacy of the slain civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate with a national holiday, observed Jan. 15 this year. CNS file photo
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is pictured in an undated file photo. The nation honors the legacy of the slain civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate with a national holiday, observed Jan. 15 this year. CNS file photo

In Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch is appointed as defense lawyer for Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a young white girl in Depression-Era Alabama. Toward the end of Chapter Three, Finch shares his uncompromisingly noble moral philosophy regarding racism and its attendant stereo-typing with his six-year old daughter, Scout. “You never really understand a person,” Atticus tells her, “Until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

That is one of those quotes that prompts me to say, “I wish I had said that.”  

Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her book in 1961 as the battle for civil rights in the United States intensified in virtually every segment of society. At the same time, a young black Baptist minister from Atlanta was rapidly gaining national attention as the leader of and spokesman for the American civil rights movement. His name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he was 32 years old.  

Influenced by the writings of the Indian Hindu religious philosopher and civil rights activist Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Dr. King embraced and advocated non-violence and civil disobedience in the sermons and speeches he gave, in the demonstrations and protests he led, in the interactions and conversations he had with both his followers and his opponents all over the country. King made the civil rights movement “front page news” everywhere throughout the turbulent 1960s. As first President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957-68), he helped organize the landmark “March on Washington” in 1963, where his famous “I Have A Dream” speech instantly became a national inspiration and oratorical treasure. King was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent work opposing racial inequality. He was instrumental in the passage of: the “1964 Civil Rights Act” signed into law by then President Lyndon B. Johnson, officially ending racial segregation and employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin; the “1965 Voting Rights Act” removing racially-based obstacles to voting; the “1968 Fair-Housing Act” prohibiting racially-based discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of housing. King also broadened his advocacy to include opposition to the Vietnam War and poverty in the United States.

As his mentor Mahatma Gandhi before him in 1948 in New Delhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a champion for the non-violent struggle for civil rights and racial equality in America, fell victim to the violence he so valiantly opposed when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. Although a bullet tragically ended his life at the age of 39, that same bullet ironically established his enduring legacy in our nation’s history, 18 years later earning him a date of annual commemoration on the American federal calendar.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself who once wrote “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life (“Strength to Love,” 1963).”  King truly gave his life “for the welfare of others,” lifting his brothers and sisters of every race to “a more noble life.”  Yes, his life ended 50 years ago. But the cause for which he lived and died goes unfinished. The tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 this past year and the renewed rise of white supremacy and neo-nazism in our country that preceded it in recent years make that abundantly clear.  

Celebrating a great man and his inspiring legacy is an important and noble thing.  But memories are simply not enough. The true measure of a man like Dr. Martin Luther King is the real difference he made and continues to make in the lives he left behind.  

Atticus Finch’s advice to his young daughter is right and true. We will never understand a life, any life of any person of any race unless we “consider things from his/her point of view” — unless we “climb inside his/her skin and walk around in it.”  That will make a difference.

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