On April 4th, 1968 (49 years ago today) Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
Ten years ago I visited a friend of mine, Fr. Victor Ingalls, in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama as part of an event joining priests and seminarians from all over the country with the Catholic community there. As part of the trip we visited Rev. King's parish--Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was powerful to see the pulpit where the civil rights leader preached the Gospel message of the inherent dignity of each human person, regardless of race or ethnicity. It was touching to meet members of his congregation where, in the years following his death, they have continued to live out Jesus' call to serve and ministry to the poor and the marginalized. It was inspiring to stand in the spot where Rev. King and other civil rights leaders organized the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott. The most moving part, however, was located in the basement of the church where a massive mural painted by John W. Feagin covers each wall. The most striking portion of the mural was a depiction of King, dressed completely in white, as if joining the saints in heaven. I think it was striking because often we look at Martin Luther King, Jr. as a political figure or an activist and, while certainly he had a profound impact on politics in the United States and around the world, I believe he would have described himself first and foremost as a man of God. He was a preacher, not a politician and, while his message is certainly relevant for people of all creeds, he approached his cry for justice and racial equality from the perspective of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is a reminder to all of us that for many civil rights leaders it was their faith that drove and inspired them to fight against oppression and discrimination. It was their faith that gave them the language and the character to continue their struggle against insurmountable odds for so long. It was their faith that reminded them of the long Biblical struggle of the People of God and the redemption offered by Christ. As Christians Rev. King's life and message should be both a source of pride and a challenge to us. A reminder that our faith can do remarkable things in the world when we truly live it out.
(Unfortunately I couldn't find a good picture of the part of the mural I mentioned, so I guess you'll have to visit yourself!)