Reflecting on the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. addressing a crowd in Washington DC
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C.

Dear Members of the USF Community,

Today we reflect on the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., including his activism and prophetic writing and speeches. For me, this is also when I remember his death on a spring day 55 years ago when he was assassinated in Memphis by a white supremacist. I was about to turn 10, and I recall my parents’ deep concern about his murder and what it meant to the hoped-for progress in the civil rights movement.

In the intervening years, I grew up in the era of campus protests, racial unrest, and civic action. And, of course, I became a Jesuit priest. To this day, as I choose how I respond to a world that is often systemically unjust and violent, I am still learning from Dr. King. In my continuing process of living Jesuit spirituality and the practice of discernment taught by St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, I have had opportunities to ponder the similarities between Dr. King and Ignatius, especially their teachings about God’s grace and active human faith.  

USF’s own Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice, founded in 2018, continues the legacy of Dr. King. In this and many other ways, we are dedicated to investigating, illuminating, and advancing the theory and practice of transformational nonviolence in order to confront and overcome injustice and systemic violence. Systemic violence, of course, includes racism, sexism, war, the attacks we are seeing on our fragile planet, and other forms of brutality. Combating these sins requires discernment in order to fuel meaningful action. We must ask ourselves the tough questions that will take us beyond awareness and understanding and will drive us to confront and overcome the structures that impede freedom, equity, peace, and a prosperous, hopeful future for all.  

Many of you are still away from campus and may be marking this national holiday in your own neighborhoods, communities, and places of worship. I hope it is a meaningful day, however you are spending it.

As your classmates and colleagues return to campus, please consider joining our community gathering on Jan. 26 to carry forward the vision of a beloved community shared by Dr. King, Dorothy Day, and Thich Nhat Hanh; by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’;  and by all of us united in the struggle to protect the earth we share with all beings. I look forward to seeing you there.

In the midst of preparing for and beginning a new semester of teaching, learning, supporting each other, and advancing the priorities of USF, please join me in continuing to reflect on Dr. King’s teachings and his courageous, bold call to change the world.

Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J.