The national holiday on Jan. 16 honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will unfold with a day off work for most Americans and include prayer services, parades and volunteer activities to honor the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader.
Sixteen months earlier, Pope Francis in the first papal address to a joint meeting of Congress had paid special tribute to the legacies of four great Americans, including King, whom he praised for fostering “a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters.”
In that address, the pope also extolled President Abraham Lincoln for his defense of liberty and singled out two noted American Catholics: Dorothy Day for her work on behalf of the poor, and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, for his efforts promoting dialogue and peace.
As members of Congress from both parties listened in rapt attention to the papal address, which they interrupted with applause numerous times, Pope Francis spoke of King’s march and dream for justice.
“Here too, I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans,” the pope said.
“That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams,’” he continued. “Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
The pope’s remembrance of King drew a standing ovation from the members of Congress, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), himself a civil rights icon, who seemed visibly moved.
As a young activist, Lewis had played a leading role at the 1963 March on Washington, where King had given his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. On March 7, 1965, a day remembered as “Bloody Sunday” Lewis was knocked unconscious after being hit in the head by a nightstick from a state trooper on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the march that King led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to urge voting rights for African-Americans.
On the day before his speech to Congress, Pope Francis had been welcomed at the White House by Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, whom many Americans considered to be an embodiment of King’s dream.
At that welcoming ceremony, the pope and president listened as 17 members of the St. Augustine Gospel Choir, accompanied by their pastor, Father Patrick Smith, sang the hymn, “Total Praise” by Grammy nominated composer Richard Smallwood.
“For a very few moments, we were able to touch people with a simple but powerful song about glorifying God. For that moment, we got to partner with the pope in proclaiming the Good News. That was the honor,” said Smith.
Before dawn that morning, most of the choir members, along with their pastor, had met at their church, and then walked two miles to the White House, carrying their choir robes.
For St. Augustine parishioners – who attend the mother church for black Catholics in the nation’s capital – that was not their first brush with history, but it marked a continuation in their parish’s story of faith and its own march for freedom.
St. Augustine Parish was founded in Washington, D.C., in 1858, by free men and women of color, including emancipated slaves. The parish began as a school, and Smith has said its founders knew that a good education rooted in their Catholic faith would help their children gain a brighter future, a legacy that today’s parishioners continue as they sacrifice to support their school.
In August 1963, St. Augustine parishioners hosted participants who had come to the city for the March on Washington, and after praying together at a morning Mass they set out from the church’s steps to join the crowd gathered before the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The day of the March on Washington – Aug. 28 – coincided with the feast day of St. Augustine, the patron saint of their parish.
Before the 50th anniversary of that famous march in 2013, two St. Augustine parishioners who had joined the rally reflected on that day in an interview with the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.
“Everybody was just so happy and enthusiastic and ready to march,” said Marion Cunningham, remembering walking a few miles with St. Augustine parishioners through the city that day. “Despite the fact it was a long walk, it didn’t seem long at all. We walked all the way to the (National) Mall. We were singing, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”
The St. Augustine parishioners marched through a city where in times of segregation, blacks were excluded from some movie theaters and restaurants, and where in past years, black Catholics even had to sit in the back of their churches and wait until the end of the line to receive Communion. But their faith, and their quest for racial justice, endured.
Daniel Osborne, another St. Augustine parishioner who joined the march, said that during the speech by King, “people were transfixed. Some people were holding hands, black and white. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.”
Both men said that King’s dream resonates today. That message “is just as important today as it was the day he did it,” Cunningham said.
Osborne said King’s legacy lives on, but his dream is still elusive. Americans, he said, need to “all work together to make the country better.”
Working for justice and freedom has been part of St. Augustine’s history from its beginning. St. Augustine Parish joined members of its sister parish, Regina Mundi (“Queen of the World”) from Soweto in South Africa, in celebrating the end of apartheid in that nation and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and his election as president there four years later.
Every Friday, a group of parishioners from St. Augustine fans out to visit homeless people in the city of Washington, to talk and pray with them and offer them food and supplies. At Mass, they pray for their homeless friends by name.
A few weeks after Pope Francis had praised King, St. Augustine’s pastor spoke about the civil rights leaders’ legacy. The African-American priest had been invited to address a “Theology on Tap” gathering for Catholic young adults at a Washington-area pub.
Born in Washington two months after King’s famous speech, Smith as a seminarian studying in Rome devoted his thesis to a study of King, and the prayer card for his ordination to the priesthood included a quote from the civil rights leader, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was assassinated four years later.
Noting that King died at the age of 39, Smith told his young adult audience, “God doesn’t need a whole lot of time to do great and powerful things” in one’s life. The key, he added, is not your ability, but your availability, in opening your heart to God’s call and following it.
The priest said King, who was a Baptist minister, “did not see himself as a protester. He saw himself as a man of faith.” He said the activist “made and continues to make an impact not just because he was a dreamer, but because he was a doer” who could not remain passive in the face of injustice.
On the King holiday this year, the young adults from St. Augustine Parish will honor his legacy by volunteering with a group that collects books for inmates, which continues their parish’s ongoing work supporting education and reaching out to the poor. Their dream and march, like King’s, continues.