By Mark Schmeltzer
Independence Day has fireworks. Thanksgiving has turkey. And on Veteran’s and Memorial Days, flags flutter on front porches all over America. But as federal holidays go, the one commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is relatively young. Signed into law in 1983, and officially observed for the first time three years later, a consensus is still forming around the single best way to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Current customs vary. Dr. King’s words regarding service to others continue to inspire many to spend the day doing volunteer work. Others educate themselves about Dr. King’s life and works, and about the history of the civil rights movement.
For 80-year-old Brother Paul McDonough, a member of the Christian Brothers Catholic religious order, the best way to honor the holiday and Dr. King is simply to listen. Each year, for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, McDonough journeys roughly 300 miles from Chicago to St. Louis to attend a service at the Old Courthouse, where participants reflect on the slain civil rights leader’s life and legacy.
“We need constant reminders,” McDonough said, as he thought back on the ways that Dr. King’s example influenced his own life.
When McDonough was a recent college graduate in the early 1960s, King’s moral courage and clarity moved him to reflect on his own values. As a result of that reflection, McDonough ultimately vowed to work for justice and to fight the unequal treatment of African Americans.
When King spoke, McDonough listened.
“There’s a moment, in social justice, where you say to yourself, ‘you know, I’ve held this position for so long—but they’re right,” he said.
The Cincinnati native said that King’s message on behalf of marginalized people both at home and abroad was an influence on his own decision to enter religious life.
“I felt that I had to do something more to make the world a little better.”
McDonough feels that the late civil rights leader had the singular ability to move this country’s population, its politicians, and its institutions beyond their comfort zones and confront the status quo on behalf of people who would no longer wait silently for the freedom and equality that was enshrined in our constitution.
King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, for example, famously challenged religious leaders who had been sympathetic to the cause, but who had urged him to keep it in the courtroom and out of the streets. To those who had judged as “unwise and untimely” the civil disobedience for which King was arrested, his letter replied, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
In one of the most powerful treatises of the Civil Rights movement, King wrote that he had come to Birmingham, AL, from Atlanta, GA, to fight segregation because, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
King called for direct action in the Birmingham Campaign that year, which heightened national and international attention for the movement to secure equal rights for African Americans. As he wrote in the letter, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.”
McDonough reflected on what he called a “galvanizing moment” for him—Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. McDonough arrived in that city in the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination to attend a planned annual Holy Week retreat for the Christian Brothers. He recalled that Memphis had been completely shut down by the National Guard and described the scene as eerie.
King’s death changed the focus of the retreat, he said. “Our entire conversation became our commitment to social justice and civil rights.”
When plans were announced for a march in downtown Memphis the following Monday, April 8, retreat participants were faced with a decision. They could continue with their activities as planned, which included several speakers who were already scheduled. Or they could join the march in solidarity with the civil rights cause. After lengthy discussion, they decided to join the marchers.
Speakers at the march included King’s widow Coretta Scott King, and King’s close associate Ralph Abernathy. McDonough remembered that the marchers were surrounded by National Guard troops and walked in rows of eight across.
“We embraced. We held each other’s arms. We had to stick together.”
The amazing thing, he said, was that “you felt like your life was changing while you were walking.”
After King’s assassination, McDonough left his teaching job at a college preparatory school and founded a school in the inner city of St. Louis along with four other Christian Brothers.
“We lived in a tenement house because we wanted to immerse ourselves with the poor.”
McDonough has spent the four-and-a-half decades since working on behalf of the disadvantaged in a variety of roles, and today sees personal fulfillment in his relationships with families involved in Mercy Home for Boys & Girls’ Friends First volunteer mentoring program.
He continues to make his annual pilgrimage to St. Louis most years to remind himself of Dr. King’s influence on his own ministry. And he advises anyone to challenge themselves to see life from the point of view of someone else.
“Just go out of your comfort zone and go sit in a space where you would not normally go. And then listen. It’s not much, but it’s the way I got started.”
Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer who works in non-profit communications.