As the nation observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a friar who met the civil rights leader when King was awarded the St. Francis Peace Medal in 1963, writes about the changes in race relations he has witnessed as a member of the African-American community.
When the HNP Communications Office asked me to write a reflection on this year’s observance of the Martin Luther King holiday, the staff suggested that I write about my perception of how things have changed in the areas of racial peace, justice and the relations between people.
The first thing that comes to mind is the vast improvement in the atmosphere, or climate, in which African Americans of our nation had to live or survive before the African American Civil Rights Movement (1954 to 1968). I remember the 1930s, 40s and early 60s as a time of fear and impending danger, due to the oppressing laws, customs and attitudes.
The pervasive discrimination laws and customs in many parts of the South imposed restrictions on aspects of daily life. Referred to as “Jim Crow laws,” these created a sense of low self-esteem and hopelessness in the minds of those who lived in or visited these areas. In the North and other parts of the United States, there was what was referred to as “de facto segregation.” This included some local laws and customs, but also biases and segregation in housing, employment, community status, second-class education and invisible walls to certain professions, vocations or advancement in general.
Rebirth of Empowerment
Martin Luther King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement provided a kind of rebirth of African American empowerment through rediscovery of history and the contribution made to the building and continuing strength of America. The repeal of the laws of segregation and those forbidding participation in business and quality education, and limiting voting rights, had a great impact upon the community and on society.
Throughout the years following the movement, I have continually noticed an improvement in the self-esteem and inner freedom of people. The communities of color still struggle with the residuals of deprivation, remaining racial attitudes and open or hidden racism. Many live in poverty and need a greater share in the life that is part of the American dream. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech delivered on Aug. 28, 1963 contains ideals that still need achievement.
I noticed some significant changes in the area of religion. I recall reading the results of a survey published in a Josephite magazine in the 1940s. It stated that there were only nine African American priests ministering in the United States and two African American priests ministering overseas. The magazine confirmed there were only a handful of religious communities with black members. Obviously this vocational shortfall has improved, but there is still a need for greater efforts by the churches of this nation. I have also noticed an almost unimaginable growth in diversity within the church as far as people and forms of worship, especially the frequent use of gospel music.
Milestones of Progress
In the 1940s, it was beyond my imagination that America would be celebrating a national holiday of an African American civil rights leader who was an ordained minister and martyr of Gospel values. It was beyond belief that we would be living under the leadership, as a nation, of a president of African-American descent. These two milestones show me how far we have progressed along our journey.
The events of the last several months covered in an out-of-proportion way by the media remind me that there is much more to be accomplished. For example, it is a recognized fact that young adult male African Americans and their parents still have to be cautious in their daily lives to avoid possible arrest or adding to the still disproportionate number of black males in prison or with a criminal record. There are other areas needing vast improvement, such as the lives of those a priest-sociologist calls the “forgotten members of the African American community.” For them, there seems to be little hope of rising from poverty and hopelessness.
As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015, we need to continue to strive to put in place the philosophy, dream and example of peace and justice of this Nobel Peace Prize and Franciscan Peace Award recipient.
— Fr. Benedict Taylor is the founder of Create, Inc., a social services program located in Harlem, N.Y.
Friars interested in submitting a reflection about a feast day, holiday or other timely topic for publishing in a future issue of HNP Today should contact the HNP Communications Office at email@example.com.