‘The prophet must not have died in vain’: The Jesuits, MLK and the fight for racial justice

Two weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, editors of AmericaThe following was written in an editorial

One question is important, one that affects every person in this country. Will the prophet be heard after his death? What will the martyr do with his blood? Will we be able to make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality?

King’s murder just as his prophetic call for racial justice in the United States was reaching its crescendo inspired a passionate plea from the anonymous writer of the editorial, who also wrote: “We mourn that the prophet must die in order to be heard. We regret that King’s last and most powerful word must be the bloodletting. This last word must not be lost. The prophet must not have died in vain.”

“We mourn that the prophet must die in order to be heard.”

As we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. this coming Monday with a national holiday, it is important to recognize that the Catholic Church (including the Society of Jesus) has had its own shameful role to play in our nation’s long and painful history of racism. The 1960s saw the publication of AmericaThey found themselves in sync with the goals and dreams of Civil Rights Movement to a degree not possible without the pioneering work John LaFarge (S.J.

Father LaFarge, a descendant of an American artistic family, was editor in chief. AmericaFrom 1944 to 1948, and for many years as an associate editor. LaFarge was a tireless advocate for African Americans’ rights in those pages. AmericaAs well as in numerous books and speeches. He was on the dais when Dr. King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, a recognition of his decades of advocacy for racial justice. 

LaFarge established the Catholic Interracial Council of New York, in 1934. There were 42 similar councils by 1960. The Catholic Interracial Councils had gained popularity throughout the United States with political activists, as a means of interracial dialogue. He published his most significant book on race relations in 1937. Interracial Justice: An Examination of the Catholic Doctrine of Race Relations.

Pope Pius XI asked John LaFarge to help write an encyclical on racism; the target of the encyclical was clear—the racist policies of Nazi Germany.

LaFarge, in that book as well as several others, argued that human right were inherent to all people, regardless of race, creed, or class; governments did not grant rights to individuals, but they were only protected. The argument found an enthusiast in Pope Pius XI, who in 1938 asked LaFarge to help write an encyclical on racism, to be titled “The Unity of the Human Race” (Humani Generis Unitas). The target of the encyclical was clear—the racist policies of Nazi Germany. Though the encyclical was never released, it formed the basis for much of the Catholic Church’s human rights policies in the aftermath of the Second World War.

LaFarge, who was 84 years old, died Nov. 24, 1963. “He was never one to identify the status quo with the Law of God,” his fellow editors wrote after his death, “nor, by the same token, to lose the vision of ultimate and abiding values underlying social change.” America’s editor in chief at the time, Thurston N. Davis, S.J., noted LaFarge’s enormous impact on the direction of the magazine: “Whatever influence [America has] today, what authority we can muster in the world of the press, we owe largely to this gently dogged priest whose broad sympathy for his fellow man spanned the whole world round and constantly spilled over onto our pages.”

America’s coverage of the life and influence of Martin Luther King Jr. over the years has also offered a focus on his spirituality and theology, including this 2021 reflection by Marcia Chatelain on “The Jesuit Spirituality of Martin Luther King Jr.” 

We have also tried to cover the theological expressions of those who picked up King’s mantle in the decades that followed his death, including James H. Cone. This is the 2019 review. America of Cone’s memoir, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Anthea Butler noted that “Cone’s autobiography speaks to one of the most pressing issues of our time, racism, through the pain of his experience and the strength of his writing. For Catholics today, it holds one other important truth: Theology does not arrive out of a sterile doctrinal laboratory but from the pains, sufferings and triumphs of the people of God.”

“The richness of black culture undergirded his theological mien, and it is the first important lesson of the book: Theology does not exist in a doctrinal vacuum,” Butler wrote. “It is culled from the culture of the people and the times in which they live, as well as from Christian doctrine and the life of Christ. It does not ignore the signs of the times.”

One line in particular in Cone’s memoir struck Butler as emblematic of the current struggle for racial justice in the United States: “The ever-present violence of white supremacy—psychic, physical and spiritual—in the black community should be the chief concern of white Americans. Reconciliation is a white responsibility.”

Father LaFarge’s reflections on the March on Washington were recorded by him on Aug. 28, 1963. AmericaIt was called “but a start, a summons for unceasing effort.” The hour is bound to come—and the less delay the better—when North and South alike will set a final seal upon its simple goal of jobs and freedom for All citizens—yes for all.”

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If you noticed these past few weeks that we have taken a bit of a deeper dive than usual into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. We will be featuring literary commentary and reviews every week in this space. This will allow us to offer you more detailed coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other columns from the Catholic Book Club

Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations

John Updike – Suspicious about Santa, but fondly devoted to Christ

Wendell Berry: the cranky farmer, poet and essayist you just can’t ignore

Have a great time reading!

James T. Keane