King: ‘I have a dream’ — Do we?

| August 28, 2013 | 0 Comments
Mathew Ahmann, center, stands with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the March on Washington.

Mathew Ahmann, center, stands with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the March on Washington.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech — a dream in which he outlined a vision of racial equality, justice and freedom for all.

The eradication of racial segregation and discrimination based on the color of one’s skin was also a dream of hundreds of thousands of other marchers that day — black and white. While at the time there were Catholics around the country who were reticent to take up the cause of racial equality or opposed it altogether, there were many others — priests, religious and laity — committed to breaking down racial barriers by witnessing to their faith in words and actions.

The Catholic Bulletin (the former name of The Catholic Spirit) reported that 58 Minnesotans were among those who “marched for jobs and freedom equality among the races” on Aug. 28, 1963, and met with the state’s congressional delegation. One archdiocesan priest who was among 18 Minnesota clergymen at the march “won” his trip in a drawing among seven priests who contributed the money for one of them to attend.

Another Minnesotan at the march was Mathew Ahmann, a St. Cloud native and graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville. He was the founding director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice and Catholic co-chairman of the March on Washington. He also delivered one of the speeches that day from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“We are gathered,” Ahmann said, “to dedicate ourselves to building a people, a nation, a world which is free of the sin of discrimination based on race, creed, color or national origin; a world of the sons of God, equal in all important respects; a world dedicated to justice, and to fraternal bonds between men. I am a Catholic. These are goals the Catholic community shares with all other Americans.”

As Catholics once fought for their own rights as citizens, he added, they now needed to fight for the rights of African-Americans and other minorities.

Still work to do

Much good has happened in the intervening five decades. There is more appreciation for racial and ethnic diversity today than there was in 1963 and more civil rights protections.

But challenges remain: Racial stereotypes and prejudices persist. Poverty is still far too rampant in communities of color. Tensions continue to flare from time to time, as they did recently following the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.

The Church can, and must, continue to play a role in creating a world free of the sin of racism.

In their recent statement marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, members of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church said marchers “rooted themselves in infinite hope.”

“We also must join with one another rooted in infinite hope and, in light of what faith teaches, work to advance and fulfill the dream,” they wrote. “We join the call for positive action that seeks to end poverty, increase jobs, eliminate racial and class inequality, ensure voting rights, and that provides fair and just opportunities for all.”

Ten years ago, Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn wrote a pastoral letter on racism titled “In God’s Image,” in which he reflected on his own experiences of racism, called racism “a serious moral evil” that violates God’s will, and urged Catholics to combat it in their personal lives and in the public square. (The letter can be accessed on the archdiocesan website at http://www.archspm.org.)

“It is my invitation and fervent wish that every Catholic in the archdiocese will join me in making this local Church the ‘salt and light’ for the world through its efforts to fight racism and promote racial diversity and harmony,” Archbishop Flynn wrote. “Let us make this Church a place of welcoming and learning, a place of encounter and dialogue among peoples of all races and cultures. Let us make this church a clear sign to the world by speaking out against racism and by working to transform the institutions and structures in which racism is so deeply embedded. By doing so, we will make God’s love more present. We will make God’s unity more visible. We will make God’s justice more real.”

John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, recently characterized Rev. King’s address as “a sermon, not a speech.”

Fifty years ago, that sermon inspired Catholics to stand together against the evils of racism. Today that sermon, along with what the Church teaches about human dignity and respect for all people, should motivate us to keep pursuing Rev. King’s dream until it becomes an unquestioned reality.

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Category: Editorials