Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s appointment as the seventh archbishop of Washington was announced on April 4, which happened to be the 51st anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But, that is far from the only connection the new archbishop of Washington has with the late civil rights leader. Archbishop Gregory was installed as the archbishop of Atlanta on Jan. 17, 2005, on the federal holiday honoring Dr. King. 

That city is closely associated with Dr. King. Writing earlier this year in the Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory noted that  “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has become an icon of social justice for the entire world and particularly for our nation. Atlanta is justifiably proud of her native son.”

Speaking to the press on the day his appointment to Washington was announced, Archbishop Gregory spoke of Dr. King.  Recalling that “I was just 20 years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated,” the archbishop called the late civil rights leader a “modern martyr” whose murder “caused such a sense of loss in me.”

Archbishop Gregory called Dr. King an “extraordinary American, preacher of the Gospel and great humanitarian.” He said the assassination “was a turning point in my life” because Dr. King died for “the cause of justice, peace and unity.” 

The influence of Dr. King on Archbishop Gregory can be seen in several events in recent years. He has preached in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both Dr. King and his father preached.

“Here in this place, an extraordinary, prophetic preacher called people of his day and time to see that injustice was incompatible with God’s kingdom,” Archbishop Gregory said there in 2005. “We can do nothing less in response to the injustices of our own day.”

In 2006, Archbishop Gregory was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

At a 2017 panel discussion sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life on “Confronting Racism in Our Hearts and Our Nation,” Archbishop Gregory noted that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fought racism as a spiritual leader, who was “the first one who spoke to the heart of our nation about the spiritual values that were being ignored.”

In this photo from 2016, Archbishop Wilton Gregory preaches at a Mass in honor of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. (Georgia Bulletin photo/Michael Alexander)

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. 

In late March 1968, Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support black sanitation public works employees who were on strike seeking higher wages and better working conditions. On April 4 of that year, Dr. King – standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel – was mortally wounded by a gunshot fired by James Earl Ray. He was taken to St. Joseph Hospital, where after emergency surgery he was pronounced dead.

"Fifty years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we still find ourselves confronting many of the barriers to equality and justice for which he gave such a powerful witness," Archbishop Gregory said in an April 2018 address to the National Federation of Priests' Councils. 

Writing in the Georgia Bulletin to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination, the archbishop wrote, “This introspective moment should invite each of us to rededicate ourselves to the goals of peacemaking, racial harmony and the pursuit of justice that he reflected and symbolized for this nation and for the entire world.” 

Archbishop Gregory was also among many across the country who in 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s now famous “I Have a Dream” speech.On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. King was among the leaders who organized a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march included a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that was opened with an invocation by then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington. It was at that rally that Dr. King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” Dr. King said.

Many local Catholics were among the estimated 250,000 to 300,000 participants at the march.

“For those of us who were alive at the time and who can recall the world of 1963, there are many changes for us now to consider... We have marked some historic achievements that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago with people of color now occupying offices and public responsibilities that we might have only fantasized about 50 years ago,” Archbishop Gregory wrote in August 2013. 

“Nevertheless, individual accomplishments have not completely fulfilled the dream that Dr. King proposed in his epic sermon at the Reflecting Pool. His dream was for a nation that was fully preoccupied with justice.” 

He wrote that while “the dream of which Dr. King spoke has not been realized… there is much from Dr. King’s dream with which we ought to take heart. Our young people have largely adopted the vision of a society of genuine equality. … Young people of color can now dream of being astronauts, diplomats, corporate executives, scientists, senators, president and even hierarchs.” 

Throughout the years, Archbishop Gregory has noted that the annual March for Life and the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King day are observed quite near each other. 

“Dr. King dared to call America to a more profound sense of our heritage of freedom and respect. Those who work for an end to abortion and for a restoration of the public recognition of the dignity of all human life continue in his legacy of calling people to moral righteousness,” Archbishop Gregory once wrote. “Dr. King was vilified for his work, and those who dedicate themselves to the pro-life movement are often misunderstood and disparaged. Yet his persistence, in time, moved the soul of a nation.”

While he was installed as archbishop of Atlanta on the holiday honoring Dr. King, and while he has written many columns in observance of that holiday, saying the federal holiday “prompts us to be vigilant and hopeful in working for racial harmony,” Archbishop Gregory has said the best way to honor Dr. King is by continuing his work.

Speaking at a ceremony last year at Ebenezer Baptist Church to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, Archbishop Gregory said while Dr. King “would be humbled” by the federal holiday celebrating him and by the buildings erected in his honor, the late reverend would be  “disappointed his true legacy has yet to be achieved.”

“He would have us take up the tasks that remain unfinished. His prophetic voice would challenge us all to work more vigorously to rid our nation of violence, to be actively engaged in the political arena that so needs purification … to recognize the countless thousands of homeless and hungry people still living in the shadow of our opulence,” Archbishop Gregory said. “These actions would be the legacy he would most desire in 2018, 50 years after his assassination.”

Twelve years earlier, at a 2006 Mass honoring Dr. King, the archbishop said that “the real legacy of which Dr. King himself would be most proud are the opportunities that now exist for young people of color and young white people to see each other as brothers and sisters.” 

“The enduring legacy (of Dr. King),” said Archbishop Gregory, “is the horizon of possibilities that exist for this nation to live out the fulfillment of its lofty heritage of equality and the unfettered human potential that was restricted to only one segment of society when he first began the struggle for freedom.”