Prayer Service to Honor the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

January 19, 2015

About a month ago, the director of the recent film Selma, Ava DuVernay, gave a radio interview in which she talked about meeting an earnest young man who approached the film crew to thank them for making the film which moved him. He said he’d never known what ‘MLK’ meant. 

“Oh,” they replied. “You mean, to the country?”

“No,” the young man replied. “I did not know what the initials M-L-K stood for.” 

DuVernay and her colleagues hadn’t expected that. “You forget,” she said. “You say ‘MLK,’ and to some people it’s a holiday or a sale.”

It is so easy, so common, for us to forget Martin Luther King and the struggle that defined his life. But it is important to remember. That is what today is about.

It is important to remember the hardships African Americans endured in a segregated nation.

Percy Pierre, an African-American Notre Dame graduate and emeritus trustee, recently gave an address at MIT in which he remembered the hardships of his youth. He was fortunate enough to go to a good parochial high school in New Orleans, because all the public high schools for blacks in that segregated city were terribly inferior.  

He remembered that he was not able to enter the public library to read books. Fortunately, the English teacher at his high school convinced the librarian to let Percy and some classmates in to read, but only if they went in through a back door and sat discreetly in a separate section of the library.

Percy remembered that once, when he was driving with a friend back to Notre Dame in January, their car broke down on a two-lane road between two towns in Mississippi. Percy wrote:

We knew we were in trouble. If something happened to us, we knew that no one would come to our aid, and no one would be convicted for what they might have done to us.

My friend decided to walk into the next town. He later came back with the town sheriff, who offered to tow our car into town and park it at a service station where we could get it fixed in the morning. After arriving in town, we thanked him and went to sleep in the car.

About 2 a.m. we heard a knock on the window. It was the sheriff. He asked us if we would like to sleep in the jail, since it was so cold outside. We both shouted “No, we’re warm,” as we continued to freeze. We did not want to take a chance of disappearing in the jail. I felt the fear.

Sadly, many minorities still feel this fear in our cities today. We must acknowledge that, and I hope we are all uncomfortable with it.

It is important to remember the heroism. Martin Luther King and his companions felt the same fear that Percy felt, but were not conquered by it. They sat at segregated lunch counters, marched in marches, went on strikes that were aggressively repressed. Many were sprayed with water hoses, attacked by dogs, brutally beaten and spent time in jail and some were killed. Martin Luther King received countless death threats.

Yet they were courageous, and they persevered. 

Their courage calls us to be courageous. Their sacrifices call us to be self-sacrificing. Their response to the call of their consciences calls us to listen to the prodding of our consciences.

It is important too to remember the profound spiritual message of Martin Luther King. 

The language of Martin Luther King was the language of the Gospel, the language of love, as was clear in the passage that Dr. Page just read. His method was that of non-violent resistance, which seeks to bring change not through force, but standing non-violently against injustice in a way that calls attention to it, and changes our hearts.

I can’t help thinking of the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown, and in France, with the killing of those at the periodical Charlie Hebdo. Both are complex situations, each different from the other, and I don’t want to gloss over the complexity. But I cannot help thinking sadly that in these and other events, a certain cycle is at work. There were real or perceived affronts, a violent, lethal reaction, and in turn other violent reactions. Since then, there have been further affronts, more violence, all leading to deeper divisions. One can see in very different events a destructive cycle of affront and violence spiraling downward and creating deeper divisions.

The greatness of Martin Luther King consists not only in that he stood unflinchingly for justice – which he did; not only in that he so powerfully denounced oppression – which he did; or that he brought about change – which he did. The special greatness of Martin Luther King is that, while doing all that, he showed us a way out of that destructive cycle of oppression and affronts - violence – further oppression and affronts – more violence – and deeper divisions. He showed us that we did not have to respond to hatred by hating, and to violence with violence. He marched, he sat in, he engaged in civil disobedience without destructive violence, without hating. And thereby he changed not only laws and policies; he changed hearts.

Dr. King’s transformative message was one for which, in the end, he gave his life. But through it, he made us more free. 

Let us not forget. Let us continue to remember. And let each of us let the message change our hearts. Let each of us ask: what does Martin Luther King have to teach us in our struggles? How can we remember and follow his example not only on January 19th, but on every day of our lives?

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.

President, University of Notre Dame