Editorial – ‘We Shall Overcome,’ once more with feeling

Marnie McAllister

A “Call to Worship” delivered during the Archdiocese of Louisville’s annual celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded the congregation that “we are still working to overcome the injustices, economic deprivations and racist prejudices in our society today.”

William Mathis, a parishioner of St. Martin de Porres Church in West Louisville, delivered this message at the opening of the Jan. 15 celebration at the Cathedral of the Assumption.

“We come to affirm the actions taken by our forefathers and mothers in being stewards of this church and our nation,” he said. “We come to remind ourselves that nonviolence is the only way.

“We come to celebrate that we are still working to overcome the injustices, economic deprivations and racist prejudices in our society today,” he said.

Mathis chose to be optimistic in his observation that the work of the Civil Rights Movement is still necessary half a century later. He chooses to “celebrate” the work for justice rather than lament its necessity.

White society — which reaps benefits from the injustices done to our darker-skinned brothers and sisters —  owes him a debt of gratitude.

The optimistic, faith-based and nonviolent effort that swelled under the leadership of King could be supplanted today by a less tolerant and peaceful movement.

With each new revelation of police brutality and the rising profile of white supremacist groups, hints of a violent response are whispered on social media.

That’s disturbing. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Frankly, the black community has been exceptionally forgiving and tolerant of the racism that permeates every moment of their lives in this country.

Is the white community of good-will making the same effort? Are we meeting tolerance and forgiveness with Christ’s call to love one another?

Each year, on the Sunday before the Martin Luther King holiday, churches around the nation — many with no dark skin in sight — enthusiastically sing a doleful rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

One wonders, when we sing the perennial favorite in a church filled with white faces, are we singing with conviction on behalf of the black community?

During the Jan. 15 celebration at the Cathedral, Archbishop Kurtz noted that the King observance “is deeply personal, but it is not private.”

“We come to stand for something important that’s at the depth of your heart and that is the dignity of every human person. Regardless of the color of your skin, your economic circumstance we stand together. We stand in prayer,” he said to a congregation of mostly African American Catholics.

The U.S. bishops also released a statement about the day, calling on Catholics to remember the Gospel.

“As our nation celebrates the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are given an important time to recommit ourselves to the Gospel message he preached, that the sin of racism can be defeated by active love and the light of faith.”

The challenge, he said, is to bring King’s message into the present moment in a way that “inspires lasting change.”

In his 1958 essay,“An Experiment in Love,” the Rev. King called on people to “cut off the chain of hate” by “projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”

This message is central to our faith as Christians. We have relied on the black community to do this hard work, often alone, for too long. What will we do to stand up for human dignity and inspire lasting change? How will we project love to the center of our lives and turn ourselves toward our black brothers and sisters?

What might we do in order to sing “We Shall Overcome” with conviction when it comes around again next year?



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