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Getting your own national holiday is something like being named a saint. Some of the edge comes off.

If, as in the case of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the culture he criticized is the one now closing federal offices and the postal service in his honor, one might find it a little awkward to continue to critique that culture in his name.

That is, of course, unless one digs beneath a few iconographic moments of protest (why not reread David J. Garrow’s biography Bearing the Cross?) into the whole of King’s life and the prophetic insights that propelled him, with human flaws and fears intact, to organize and to march, to preach and to land in jail.

In the wake of his life and of his assassination in 1968, we were a changed country. Never again would the eloquence and the wisdom of the African-American community be as hidden as it was. Yet, much of the story remains untold. Racism and the lingering effects of slavery, despite the leaps of progress since the Civil Rights era, remain nagging illnesses in the culture.

The spiritual dimensions of that illness and how to deal with it are outlined in the report on Page 10 about Fr. Clarence Williams Jr.’s course, Recovery from Everyday Racisms.

The attitudes in need of changing run deep, embedded in a history that often goes unnoticed. And the fallout continues to affect us today. As Fr. Joseph Brown argues in an accompanying piece, the wider culture does itself a great disservice by ignoring the disturbing details of the story of blacks in America. We will be looking in on some of those themes in greater depth in February, Black History Month.

If recent history is any guide, King’s holiday will be celebrated with moving scenes of interracial harmony and pledges to continue to fight the crippling disease of racism. Unfortunately, few will also celebrate King’s deep conviction, a conviction that grew during his life, of the necessity for nonviolent action and his deep revulsion toward war.

Returning to a hero’s welcome after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he said, “I am returning with a deeper conviction that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time.”

A recent Kansas City Star article, reviewing Mervyn A. Warren’s new book King Came Preaching, contained this clip of a King sermon on the church and war: “In the terrible midnight of war, men have knocked on the door of the church to ask for the bread of peace, but the church has often disappointed them. What more pathetically reveals the irrelevancy of the church in present-day world affairs than its witness regarding war? In a world gone mad with arms buildup, chauvinistic passions and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. … A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.”

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002