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King and the Catholics: a story of sainthood

Ralph Moore highlights the enduring message of Dr. King, linking his fight for justice to Black Catholics' struggle for the same—even unto sainthood.

Stained glass of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church in Morristown, New Jersey. (Loci B. Lenar)

My all-time favorite statement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the one he gave against the war in Vietnam on April 4, 1967. It was, as we all know, exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated. 

But I heard his voice loudest and most clearly when he told us in his April 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that we all must be “co-workers with God.” Combined with the African proverb John Lewis often quoted, “When you pray, move your feet,” we get a better understanding of what the Holy Spirit is telling us through King—if we are willing to listen. If we’ll hear.

“The belief that God will do everything for man is as untenable as the belief that man can do everything for himself. It too, is based on a lack of faith. We must learn that to expect God to everything while we do nothing is not faith, but superstition.”

We must act. We must do our share of the work God has assigned us on Earth. King understood God’s work orders. He understood our earthly workplace and understood the reliability of our God as a co-worker with us. As we reflect on King in these days, we realize he expresses moments of uncertainty and doubt, but his trust is in the Spirit of God, the God of love whom King so fervently espoused. We all must keep the faith and we must “fear not,” as the Lord Jesus told us over and over—perhaps 365 times—in the Gospels. 

Was King both a devout man of God and a courageous man of action? If you have any questions or doubts, read about him in history books or watch him in documentaries both praying and taking action.

See also other pilgrims on their loving faith journeys of prayer and action, people who predated King: many affectionately know them as “the Saintly Six”: Mother Mary Lange, Fr Augustus Tolton, Mother Henriette DeLille, Mr. Pierre Toussaint, Ms. Julia Greeley, and Sr Thea Bowman. Where would the people of God be without their faith and their work? 

Would there be universal or true public education in America today if Mother Lange and the Oblate Sisters of Providence had not opened St. Frances Academy in 1828 for the children of the enslaved in Baltimore? Up until then, enslaved children were barred from being educated with the threat of death to their teachers. 

Would there be any openly Black priests, had Fr Tolton not persisted after being rejected by all of the seminaries he applied to in the United States and agreed to study in Rome? He was ordained on Holy Saturday, April 24, 1886, and was surprisingly assigned to Quincy, Illinois—not Africa, where he thought he’d end up. Tolton was the first admittedly (i.e., obviously) Black and Catholic priest in America.

Where would the needy then and now be without the charitable works of Pierre Toussaint and Julia Greeley? Without these two co-workers with God, raising money and donating their personal earnings to others, would there be Catholic Charities USA with a network of helping agencies around the nation? Without inspiration from Greeley and Toussaint’s work, would the American bishops operate Catholic Relief Services, doing charity around the world? 

And without Sr Bowman’s commitment to our God, would Catholics of color realize that in prayer, in song, and in preaching, one can be Black and Catholic at the same time? Would there be nursing homes and senior centers if Mother Henriette’s order of Black women religious hadn’t created Lafon Nursing Facility to serve the elderly in 1842? 

The “Saintly Six” are the first African-American candidates for sainthood in the Catholic Church. As of this writing, there are no Black blesseds or saints from the United States. That is to say that, in the canonization process, there has never been a miracle approved by the Vatican that was submitted on behalf of any of the Black candidates.

Black Catholics have always had to fight for first-class membership in their Church. Dr. King fought hard for racial and economic justice for Black Americans generally. The way he lived his life—with courage, persistence, and love for all—tells us as much about what he represented as any speech he ever gave. And fittingly, one can say of his life, as the old saying goes: “Most of us would rather see a good sermon than hear one.”

We, Black Catholics, must honor King’s legacy and continue to fight for equitable representation within the Catholic Church. Let us all be inspired to act for justice and peace, as he was. Yes, let us be inspired. Be very inspired.

Ralph E. Moore Jr. is a lifelong Black Catholic, educated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Jesuits. He has served on various committees on race, racism, and poverty for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He is a married man with two children and four grandchildren. He is a member of the St. Ann Social Justice Committee. He can be reached at

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