A mural of Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. A mural of Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C.  (BRANDON BELL)

Dr. Bernice Albertine King: ‘MLK Day a chance to transform unjust systems’

As the United States celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the late civil rights activist’s daughter, Dr. Bernice Albertine King, invites Americans to come together as a beloved community to transform systems that perpetuate injustice, saying religious leaders like Pope Francis can offer a positive message to promote nonviolence.

By Devin Watkins

“Messaging is so important. The messages about nonviolence, peace, and compassion that Pope Francis has delivered and shared with the world are important for us.”

Dr. Bernice Albertine King, CEO of The King Center, offered that consideration in an interview with Vatican News, as Americans mark MLK Day on Monday.

The federal holiday has commemorated the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. since 1986, and invites everyone to improve their communities and follow in the footsteps of the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968.

Beloved community for peaceful world

The theme chosen by The King Center for reflection in 2023 is “Cultivating a Beloved Community Mindset to Transform Unjust Systems”.

Dr. King, the youngest daughter of the late Baptist minister, said the theme embraces her organization’s vision of promoting a “beloved community where injustice ceases and love prevails.”

“As we were thinking about where our world is today in terms of all of the issues under the banner of what my father would call the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism, it seems as if we're going through these cycles and repeating some things over and over again.”

Rather than society continuing this vicious cycle, MLK Day is an invitation for Americans to build a “just, humane, equitable, and peaceful world.”

People-centered, non-violent mindset

Yet, Dr. King noted, a better society can only come about when we cultivate a new mindset that embraces the concept of a “beloved community”.

The goal, she added, is to transform unjust systems—such as “colonialism, apartheid, racism, genocide, greed, militarism, and selfishness”—into a community where every member is valued and recognized in their inherent dignity.

Dr. King urged everyone to recognize that we are all interconnected in our common humanity, and that we can disagree without diminishing each other.

“We can collaborate without compromising on things like justice. We can make sure that the means by which we're trying to achieve something aligns with the end. In other words, you can't get to a peaceful end through violent means.”

Government policies that are people-centered are another means for attaining a “beloved community mindset.”

And love, said Dr. King, should be at the root of all efforts to work towards the common good, acting as a fuel to engender nonviolence.

Religious leadership to contrast moral crisis

The late Martin Luther King Jr. was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and third-generation Baptist minister, and his Christian convictions influenced his fight for civil rights.

Asked about the role of religion in uniting communities behind social justice issues, his daughter, Dr. King, said that religious leaders can “collectively inspire change that is grounded in love, that seeks to create a just, humane, and equitable world.”

“The beauty about religion, although there are various religions across the world, is that religion transcends our own religious doctrines, because there are certain universal themes that are important to every religion, love and peace and justice being a part of that.”

Dr. King went on to quote Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, an early 20th century Jesuit priest and philosopher, to affirm that spirituality lies at the base of our desire to build a more just world. “We are spirit[ual] beings having human experiences. We're not human beings having spiritual experiences,” she said.

Love as fuel for promoting social justice

As Christians, Jesus has charged us with being both light and salt for the world, noted Dr. King. “Being that light requires that we guide, because light is a guide,” she said. “As it relates to the salt, salt preserves and its seasons, it preserves the nutrients that you need.”

We Christians, therefore, need to work to preserve humanity and values such as “love, respect, and dignity,” which never go out of style.

“We have to take the leadership because our world is in a moral crisis. It's in a spiritual crisis,” said Dr. King. “And those of us who are spiritual people have to take our proper place to really lead us to ensure that we are reflecting those principles and values that are essential to the survival of our humanity.”

Dr. King met with Pope Francis on 12 March 2018
Dr. King met with Pope Francis on 12 March 2018

Pope Francis’ positive message

Dr. Bernice Albertine King has met with Pope Francis twice, and he sent her a letter in 2021 to mark MLK Day.

She considers his consistent appeals for peace, nonviolence, and compassion an important contribution to the creation of a better society.

Instead of the negative messaging we constantly receive from movies, news, music, and advertising, Dr. King thinks Christian leaders must offer a pervasively positive message for our contemporaries.

“I think it's important that those of us who speak in similar tones and fashion that we sound like a broken record,” she concluded. “And so hopefully there are people who are hearing and heeding the message of Pope Francis.”

Listen to the full interview

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16 January 2023, 08:00