Dr. Martin Luther King's emergency call from Selma for white clergy to join the civil rights struggle against racial violence and injustice came to my attention at dawn on March 8 of 1965, shortly after morning Mass was sung in the ancient Gregorian chant by our community of Benedictine monks in our peaceful abbey in rural New Jersey.
The day's scripture reading from Matthew 25 about what we do or don't do to the "least ones" we do to the Lord was stunningly appropriate.
Dr. King declared: "The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of America but it is fitting for all Americans to bear the burden." His summons struck me to the heart and I decided that I must go over the objections of my conservative abbot.
Two weeks before I arrived, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young Black man, had been shot in broad daylight by a Selma police officer while protecting his mother. His murder drew no publicity. It wasn't until a white Unitarian minister, Rev. James Reeb, was clubbed to death by vigilantes that the news media began to speak about violence.
At the end of the Montgomery march we received the bitter news that Viola Liuzzio, a white housewife who had joined the march from Detroit, had been shot and killed while driving young Black men to the airport. Just a few nights earlier, seated in the front of the Brown Chapel after a Freedom Rally, she had shared with me her courage and the religious ideals that had brought her to Selma.
Dr. King's birthday celebration should give us an opportunity to hear his true message of nonviolence, not merely the broadly acceptable excerpts from the "I Have a Dream" speech. His complete prophetic teachings have not generally received such acclaim. Those teachings include a tough moral critique of the U.S. culture of violence, especially in the squandering of the resources of the poor on the rapacious wars of empire.
Would Dr. King be surprised and shocked at the recent killings and attempted assassination in Arizona? Each day the violence of war is promoted as the way to solve our international problems by our president, generals and the culture at large. Whether it is the violent electronic games our children play or our history of brutal slavery and the bloody marginalization and elimination of indigenous people (usually ignored in our school curricula), violence has been our consistent historical solution of choice.
Birthday celebrations and national holidays end up being empty gestures if they are not about the authentic quest to fulfill Dr. King's dream to end militarism and to end the systematic oppression of the poor and the workers. And what would Dr. King say about the violence against the earth inherent in the human causes of global warming? President Obama's recent eloquent message in Tucson about unity and healing can help move us toward domestic civility. But we must also address this fundamental core of violence present in our culture.
Martin King's words at the end of the great march from Selma as he stood before the Montgomery Capitol, which was defiantly flying the Confederate flag, still ring in my ears like a great bell, especially during times of discouragement:
"We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. That will be a day not of the white man, not of the Black man. That will be the day of man as man. I know you are asking today, 'How long will it take?' I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult this moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.
How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow.
How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
Father Paul Mayer is a theologian, writer and social activist. Parts of this article appear in his forthcoming book Wrestling with Angels: A Spiritual Memoir of a Political Life.
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