The Popes and Martin Luther King’s dream
By Alessandro Gisotti
The tragic death of George Floyd has dramatically shown that Martin Luther King's dream is still far from being fully realized.
Yet the historic I have a dream speech, delivered by the leader of the civil rights movement on 28 August 1963 – 57 years ago – continues to resound in the mouths and hearts of those who demand justice and dignity for the African-American community and, along with it, for all minorities of all time.
That “dream”, which has its roots in the Gospel and in the liberating power of God's love, has found great allies in successive Popes.
Pope St. Paul VI
The first was St. Paul VI who received the Baptist minister at the Vatican on September 18, 1964, and encouraged him to continue his peaceful commitment against racial discrimination.
Four years later, the same Pope received with dismay the news of the killing of Martin Luther King Jr on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Three days later, on Palm Sunday, Paul VI recalled the figure of the Nobel Peace Prize winner with words of extraordinary actuality.
The Pope prayed that this crime might “take on the value of sacrifice. Not hatred, not vengeance. A new gulf between citizens of the same great and noble land should not be deepened,” he warned. “Rather, a new common purpose of forgiveness, peace, reconciliation, in the equality of free and just rights, should replace the current unjust discrimination and struggles. Our pain becomes greater and more fearful because of the violent and disorderly reactions that his sad death has provoked. But our hope also grows as we see that in responsible corners and from healthy hearts grows the desire and the commitment to draw from the iniquitous killing of Martin Luther King an effective overcoming of racial struggles, in hopes of establishing laws and methods of coexistence more in conformity with modern civilization and Christian brotherhood."
Pope John Paul II
Twenty years later, on 12 September 1987, another Saintly Pope recalled the dream of the African-American leader. Saint John Paul II was in New Orleans when he met the black Catholic Community of the city. Karol Wojtyla recalled the long and difficult journey of the African-American community to overcome injustice and to liberate itself from the weight of oppression.
“In the most difficult hours of your struggle for civil rights amidst discrimination and oppression”, he emphasized, “God himself guided your steps along the way of peace. Before the witness of history, the response of non-violence stands, in the memory of this nation, as a monument of honour to the black community of the United States.”
John Paul II spoke of the “providential role” played by Martin Luther King Jr “in contributing to the rightful human betterment of black Americans and therefore to the improvement of American society itself.” Like Paul VI he found a particular affinity with the Christian vision of human brotherhood incarnated by the Pastor from Atlanta who believed, up to point of the ultimate sacrifice, in the liberating action of faith in Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI
This vision was also referenced by Benedict XVI who, in the welcoming ceremony in Washington on 16 April 2008, stressed that faith in God has been “a constant inspiration and driving force” in the struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr “against slavery and in the civil rights movement”.
Pope Benedict confirmed those words two days later when he met with the Reverend King's daughter, Bernice Albertine, on the margins of an ecumenical celebration in New York.
Seven years later: for the first time in history, another Pope addressed the United States Congress in a joint session.
On Capitol Hill, Pope Francis delivered a speech on the spirit of the United States, noting that “A nation can be considered great when (...) it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King Jr sought to do”. For the Pope, that “dream continues to inspire us all” because awakens “what is deepest and truest in the life of a people”. And, as he has done on many other occasions, he emphasized that these kinds of dreams are not an end in themselves but “lead to action, to participation, to commitment.”
Pope Francis, like his predecessor, also met the daughter of the African-American Reverend, herself a civil rights activist. This time the audience with Bernice Albertine took place in the Vatican, on March 12, 2018. The meeting was private, but of great significance because it occurred three weeks before the 50th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King Jr.
As the Pope wrote in his Message for World Peace Day 2017, Martin Luther King Jr achieved successes against racial discrimination which “will never be forgotten.”
The way this success has been achieved matters just as much as the results themselves. “The decisive and consistent practice of nonviolence,” wrote Pope Francis, “has produced impressive results.”
On the contrary, as he stated at the General Audience this Wednesday morning, turning his thoughts to what is happening across the Atlantic, “nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost.”