It would be impossible for me not to associate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with a photograph that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Dr. King is linked arm-in-arm with two Catholic priests as they join the crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field in the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” The priest on the right of the photo is Msgr. Robert Hagarty from the Archdiocese of Chicago. The priest on the left is a man who served on the Civil Rights Commission from its beginning in 1957 and who is recognized as the primary architect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame from 1952-1987.
This photo was printed on the program for our Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Prayer Service. At that prayer service we were called to worship by the incomparable De’Shaun Adair ’14 and led by Fr. Joe Fortuna ’72, Pastor of Our Lady of the Lake. Our prayer was enhanced by the preaching of Rev. Dr. Cheryl Lindsay and the singing of Rev. Paul Hobson Sadler, Sr., both of the Mt. Zion Congregational United Church of Christ; and our voices sang to Heaven under the leadership of the Mt. Zion Praise Team which included our own Jacqui Lee-Ivey.
A highlight of the service was the magnificent presentation of the words of Dr. King by Mr. Prester Pickett, Sr., of the Howard A. Mims African American Cultural Center and Cleveland State University, and the father of one of our Ignatians, Prester Pickett, Jr., ’19. Mr. Pickett’s selections from “Justice without Violence” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” encapsulated perfectly the theme of our prayer service, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Dr. King put across that same sentiment when he said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy to a friend,” and in his own way Fr. Hesburgh followed that advice when he spent time with the segregationist governor of Virginia, John Battle.
As members of the Civil Rights Commission Hesburgh and Battle were required to work together during the day, but it was their off-hours get-togethers – described as “bourbon bridge-building” – that enabled these two men of very different political visions to cooperate for the betterment of all Americans. The fruits of this commission were many, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Fifty years have passed since the enactment of that last piece of legislation, and as a country we seem to be no closer to the dream of Dr. King than we were then. Fifty years of political grandstanding added to intellectual and emotional segregation have led us to a place where all sides are aggrieved and civil discourse is in short supply.
Since Dr. King reminds us that, “The time is always right to do the right thing,” perhaps this Lent might be a catalyst for personal prayer, reflection, fasting, and action in the area of what the French call rapprochement or a “coming together again.”
A necessary ingredient for any such “bridge-building” (bourbon or otherwise) is personal humility, a virtue that is all too often seen as a sign of weakness and therefore jettisoned. But there might be no better time for such humility than during a season when Catholics and many other Christians walk the streets of our land with ashes smeared on their foreheads as a sign of their personal commitment to repentance.
It takes humility to share time, stories, and a drink with someone who has political convictions that are the polar opposite of one’s own. It takes humility to go out these days in public with such a visible sign of your religious beliefs smudged on your forehead. It takes humility for fifteen hundred high school boys to lock arms in imitation of Dr. King and Fr. Hesburgh and sing “We Shall Overcome”, but that is exactly what happened in the Fr. Sullivan Gymnasium last Friday.
It also takes humility to see that mine is not the only cross that needs to be carried, or that it is very possible that I helped to fashion the cross carried by another. And, finally, it takes humility to remember the wisdom in Dr. King’s words when he said, “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”