At church this evening, prominently positioned near the front there was a framed portrait on an easel. It was a painting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His image graced the front of the song sheet the greeter handed everyone who entered. And King's face dominated the front page of the weekly parish bulletin.
We were visiting Old St. Pat's Catholic Church in Chicago's West Loop, an affluent and vibrant faith community that cracks a smile to welcome everyone and genuinely breaks a sweat to serve its neediest neighbors.
I couldn't help but wonder, what if Dr. King had lived? What if his assassin had missed? How would things be different?
King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, husband and father of four was only 39 when sniper James Earl Ray fatally shot him. The transformational Baptist minister, like those he emulated, was slain for loving peace too much. A devout believer in Jesus Christ and a disciple of Mohandas Gandhi's tactics of nonviolent resistance, King was devoted to truth and was convinced that peaceful protests were the most potent weapon against oppression.
"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed," King wrote in a letter in 1963 while sitting in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell. He was arrested after leading a nonviolent campaign to end segregation of lunch counters and in hiring practices. Can you believe that American businesses actually incurred the cost for extra dining space, separate restroom facilities and drinking fountains in order to keep races separate? King's campaign drew national attention when Birmingham police used attack dogs and fire hoses to abuse peaceful protesters, jailing many, including hundreds of schoolchildren.
But King and his principles of resistance to force recognition of social issues and earn reasonable negotiation would win the day. He was a brilliant man. I didn't know King attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia at age 15 through a special program for gifted students. He dabbled in medicine and law before pursuing a divinity degree at his father's urging, and later, King, Jr. earned a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University.
The remarkably eloquent and inspiring author and speaker was focused on man's relationship to God. His emphasis was not on a quest for social progress or the power of man to reason. King's core faith rested essentially in living by God's guidance.
His pursuits were not limited to the advancement of African-Americans. King championed the plight of all the poor, including the destitute of Appalachia. He protested the Vietnam War, and navigated the complex challenges of racial discrimination in Northern states, leading a fair housing fight in Chicago.
In 1968, just three years after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King was gunned down. Forty years later, America elected its first known biracial president whom voters awarded a second term. April 4, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination. Were he still alive today, he would be 89, the same age as my mother.
So much has changed for the better in America, yet our nation continues to convulse with spasms of its racial affliction. A stubborn demon. We have accomplished so much divided, imagine if we are ever truly united. It happens rarely, usually in response to a common enemy.
Tomorrow we celebrate the legacy of a man who never held public office, never collected a salary from taxpayers to reward his efforts for galvanizing a nation for goodness. This was someone who was incarcerated without ever brandishing a firearm or tangling with an officer of the law. In fact, at the Pettus Bridge outside Selma Alabama, he and his followers knelt in prayer when faced with confrontation.
Oh, the power of peace. Oh, if only he had lived.