By Joann Stevens
WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Just like the “unnamed and countless toddlers” Herod ordered killed “to make sure that the Child Jesus would never reach maturity,” Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory said Jan. 13, “innocent children killed in the quest for inclusive, social justice have also paid the ultimate price for freedoms enjoyed by Americans today.”
He invoked the Christmas feast of the Holy Innocents celebrated by Catholics worldwide in his homily at the archdiocese’s annual Mass honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Southeast Washington.
“We consequently have no idea of the number or the names of those little ones that we today honor as the martyred saints whom the church now calls the Holy Innocents,” he told the capacity crowd of about 400 worshippers.
“Nonetheless we do know the names and the number of the innocent children who were brutally murdered as a defining part of the civil rights movement at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963,” said the cardinal, wearing clerical garb embellished with colorful African textile.
People can celebrate the legacy of the slain civil rights leader and draw strength and inspiration from the witness of people, young and old, he said.
The sobering history lesson was the focal point of the annual commemorative event coordinated by the Washington Archdiocese’s Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach and celebrated this year at a parish known as “the church on the hill” for its lofty perch overlooking Washington. The Mass came two days ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed on the third Monday of January. This year’s holiday, Jan. 15, fell on his actual birthday.
A multiracial, intergenerational gathering was united in a joyous, emotionally moving celebration. Worshippers sang, clapped and swayed to spirited music delivered by the archdiocese’s Gospel Mass Choir under the direction of Henry Herrera. At other times they sat silent, at rapt attention as Cardinal Gregory related history.
The cardinal recited the names and ages of the four children who were “victims of indiscriminate hatred on Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963”: Denise McNair, who was 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all of whom were 14.
They would be senior citizens today, he said, and most likely would have become wives and mothers, maybe grandmothers, if “these lives taken at a tender age” had not been ended by an explosion by Ku Klux Klan members that shook their church and the conscience of the nation.
“The nation had already heard of and been stunned by the news of the assassination of other adult victims of racial hatred and violence, including that of Medgar Evers earlier that same year,” the cardinal recounted. “But there is something transfixing about the violent death of a child.
“Our hearts still ache at the memory of the vicious deaths of the little ones from Newton, Connecticut; Ulvade, Texas; Parkland High School in Florida, and in far too many other places in our nation from the more recent past. The death of children anywhere ought to stun us all.”
But the sacrifice of the Birmingham four proved to be redemptive.
“Sixty years ago, those four youngsters’ brutal deaths were a powerful force that compelled the U.S. Congress finally to take legislative action that led to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964,” the cardinal said. The bill is considered the broadest civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction.
Aligning Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and vision of a nation where people could live together in love, peace and harmony based on the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin, the cardinal encouraged attendees “to recall his always riveting words of a dream that must challenge us all to examine the content of our own characters.” But not as a hope, fantasy or mere suggestion.
Rev. King’s words were “a challenge for all of us, no matter what our race, age or ethnic heritage. Our personal character all need development and constant attention. Our character is the very gatehouse of the virtues that we must pursue. Our character is the foundation of our integrity,” the cardinal said.
While the four children slaughtered in 1963 did not have the opportunity to “bring their character to full flower,” they still inspire, he said. “The memory of their premature deaths encourages all of us to develop our own character according to the highest principles of our nation and our religious heritage.
“We are all prodded to take up Dr. King’s admonition and warning that we live lives of integrity that are capable of withstanding the withering scrutiny of public examination — as well as the even more perfect summons of God himself who, as the first reading (I Samuel 3:3b-10, 19) reminds us, calls each of us incessantly.”
The cardinal concluded by highlighting the ultimate goal of the U.S. civil rights movement — “to establish a society of justice” based on content of character, not by one’s skin color, age, gender, national origin, language, IQ, political opinion or any other attribute.
“Dr. King himself paid the ultimate price of real leadership” to realize his dream, the cardinal said, “as have countless others not only in the civil rights movement” but also while fighting struggles for human dignity around the world.
The civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968, when he was 39 years old.
Josephite Father Cornelius Kelechi Ejiogu, recently assigned to lead Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, welcomed all and thanked clerical leaders including Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy E. Campbell Jr., a concelebrant at the Mass, for their pastoral care in helping “this young pastor from Lagos, Nigeria, realize promises and dreams.”
The service ended with all rising to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often called the Black national anthem.
Afterward, people attending the Mass commented on the importance of Rev. King’s legacy to freedom and civil rights today and expressed appreciation for Cardinal Gregory’s reflections that used history to give context to that legacy and current events.
“Dr. King supported inclusiveness and togetherness in a peaceful way,” said Jazmin Brabson, 27, of Washington. “Everyone just getting along.”
“Martin Luther King, Jr. means everything to me, and probably to most Black Americans,” noted Kelvin Fowler Jr., 31, a visitor from Los Angeles who attended Mass with Jazmin. “It was his dream that we be here (as united people) today. I like the way the cardinal emphasized that inclusiveness, and hearing how children, babies, helped advance freedom.”
Mary Leibolt, a parishioner at St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, said she loves visiting and working with people at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The parish community “is a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and dream” and “a model of people working together,” she told the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper.
Joann Stevens writes for the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.