Understanding MLK, Jr. and the civil rights movement

By Father Matthew Hawkins

Parochial vicar, St. Benedict the Moor & St. Mary Magdalene parishes

It has been nearly 54 years since the death of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From that time until today, memories of the civil rights movement that Rev. King led have been hotly debated. People often reinterpreted both to suit their imaginations. Crucial aspects of the movement are often left out. One cannot understand Rev. King or the movement for civil rights without acknowledging how they were rooted in African American churches, spirituality, Christian theological orthodoxy, and Christian orthopraxis. One must also acknowledge these elements in African American culture throughout most of the 20th century.

By orthodoxy, I mean that Rev. King and the civil rights movement emerged out of a conventional Christian understanding of sinfulness and salvation. By orthopraxis, I mean that orthodox understanding of Christian values and teaching did not just apply to one’s private life and personal affairs. The dignity of the human person had to be brought to public spaces and the social arena. Rev. King, the civil rights movement, and the spirituality of African Americans were all of one cloth. To remove the spiritual grounding from the movement would be to deprive movement of its soul.

While Rev. King was the most visible leader of the movement, many faceless and ordinary people from African American churches gave the movement life. They were the ones who gave birth to change. The movement, at its core, was characterized by self-discipline, prayerfulness, and hard work. Participants were able to command respect by demonstrating that they had respect for themselves.

It did not stop there. The transformative power of the movement rested on the ability to see the humanity of even those who hated them. When asked what they were trying to accomplish through the strategy of “creative nonviolence,” organizers of the civil rights movement said that they could not promote their own dignity while denying the dignity of others.

The civil rights movement followed the orthodox Christian theology of salvation and redemption. As jazz composer Charles Mingus would put it, politics alone would not be enough to “fill the hole in your soul.” The movement was based on an understanding that all people, including those who were fighting for equal opportunity, were in need of salvation. It also acknowledged the transformative logic that all people, including the opposition, had the potential to change. True to its roots in Christian orthodoxy, the movement recognized the fallen state of humanity while never losing hope for the potential of human elevation.

The struggle for freedom was not just to liberate the body, it was also to liberate the mind and the soul. One of the main characteristics of the civil rights movement was the practice of relentless self-examination and interrogation of one’s conscience. The movement could not have continued in any other way. Emerging from its foundation in Christian orthopraxis, participants understood that it was not only important to try to change other people’s hearts, it was also important to allow God to break down the stubbornness of one’s own soul. Christian orthopraxis understood that nobody was exempt from the need for change.

Change comes from an encounter and forming relationships. African American theological orthodoxy and orthopraxis led Rev. King and the civil rights movement to focus on the importance of the human encounter. When we encounter one another directly, we open the possibility to overcome irrational fear and animosity. This is one of many places where Catholic social teaching about the Consistent Ethic of Life fits well with African American ecclesial orthopraxis.

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis wrote that we are called to a “face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” In other words, we cannot afford to be strangers to one another in an interdependent world.

While Christians are called to pursue social justice, this pursuit will only bear fruit so long as we acknowledge the spiritual and transcendent dimensions of our lives. Additionally, we must acknowledge our imperfections. We are saints and we are sinners. Prophetically, we must have the courage to “speak truth to power” about social injustice, but we must also have the humility to acknowledge and attend to our own weaknesses. Both are necessary to revive and carry forward the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African American ecclesial tradition that gave birth to the civil rights movement.