Five decades after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – he was murdered exactly 50 years ago this week – the great civil rights advocate continues to be an outstanding example of how to live the Gospel message, according to Catholic clergy and others.

“This tragic loss (of Dr. King) did not still his voice – it continues to ring out and inspire new generations in confronting the challenges of prejudice, injustice and division today,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl wrote in an April 4 blog marking the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.

In late March 1968, Dr. King travelled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support black sanitary public works employees who were on strike seeking higher wages and better working conditions. On April 4, 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.

Dr. King was “a man of God who, like a modern-day Moses had led people on a journey of hope toward freedom,” Cardinal Wuerl wrote in his blog. “It was Dr. King’s steadfast faith which saw him through many dark nights, and it is that faith that calls us to continue his work and see that his unfulfilled dream is more fully realized.”

That call to continue the work of the late civil rights leader was echoed by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr.

“His (Dr. King’s) legacy has to be carried forth. It is the only way to realize that we are all God’s children and we need to treat each other the way we would treat our own brothers and sisters,” Bishop Campbell said.

Bishop Campbell was among the leaders of various faiths who were scheduled to lead an April 4 rally on the National Mall to mark the anniversary of the assassination and to confront the evil of racism. The Archdiocese of Washington sponsored a “Catholics Against Racism” banner at the rally with local Catholic marching behind.

Bishop Campbell called the rally “a commemoration to end injustice and discrimination against all God’s people, which is what Dr. King tried to do.”

“Dr. King’s message was to judge people by who they are, and not by their superficial bearing, how they look, their height, their sex, their culture, their color,” Bishop Campbell said.

A similar rally was also planned for April 4 in Memphis, where Bishop Martin Holley, a former auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington who now leads the Diocese of Memphis, was scheduled to celebrate Mass in that city’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and then join Catholic and other religious leaders in a march to the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum includes the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot, and the nearby boarding house from which Ray fired the fatal shots.

Sandra Coles-Bell, program director in the archdiocesan Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach, noted that it was important for Catholics to participate in commemorations of Dr. King’s assassination.

She said Catholics today continue Dr. King’s message when they “honor the truth of our Catholic social teaching despite what our friends do.” She added that Dr. King’s life and death is a lesson “to always do the right thing for the right reason.” 

“Dr. King’s message for me was always one of doing the right thing for the right reason. The legacy (of Dr. King) that I have idealized the most is his ability to speak the truth despite the repercussions,” Coles-Bell said. “The truth was everything to him.  A legacy of integrity is never failing.”

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 his now-famous “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.

“We have parishioners who were at the March on Washington in 1963. They remember fondly that date. They knew the significance of the march in those troubled times,” said Msgr. Raymond East, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington.

Recalling “the disturbances after the assassination,” Msgr. East said that the rally, Dr. King’s death and the riots that followed “are remembrances that are really fresh” for some of his parishioners.

“We provide opportunities for the old folks to tell the young folks about peaceful protest and solidarity and to ask the young folks what they are doing to make the world a better place,” Msgr. East said.

Msgr. East, who was a senior in high school in San Diego when Dr. King was assassinated, recalls not only the protests following Dr. King’s death, but also “the great feeling of sadness and looking for direction on how to peacefully bring about change.”

“Fifty years later, what has become clear is the vision Dr. King had of the ‘beloved community’ as a place, a condition of the world in which we reflect what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer – ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’,” Msgr. East said.

The term “beloved community” was first used by Josiah Royce, a late 19th century and early 20th century American philosopher and theologian. Dr. King in his speeches used the term to denote a society in which racism and discrimination is ended by non-violent means and reconciliation.

“We have to keep that goal always in front of us,” Msgr. East said. “It is kind of keeping the dream alive when we take the idea of ‘beloved community’ as our ideal.”

Both Bishop Campbell and Msgr. East noted that Dr. King lived a life that showed he was a follower of Jesus Christ.

“He (Dr. King) tried to live like Christ, being non-violent and seeing God in all people,” Bishop Campbell said.

“He saw everyone as a person who has dignity, and he worked in a nonviolent manner to bring justice to all people,” Bishop Campbell said. “That is a testament that he was following, proclaiming and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Msgr. East said that Dr. King “taught us to care about each other and he taught and spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

“When his family was threatened – his wife and children were spit upon and threatened – he still loved. That is proof of his idea of the suffering servant,” Msgr. East said. “His faith was put to the test, but he met the test with the grace of God.”

Recalling the assassination 50 years later and Dr. King’s lasting legacy, Bishop Campbell noted that “no bullet nor a single act of violence will silence the truth – and that is what Dr. King spoke, the truth.”