Vincentian Personalism and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Personalism … gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[1]

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most inspiring and influential figures of the twentieth century, not only in the United States, but throughout the world. As is the case with most if not all such heroic figures, any careful study of King’s life shows that while he was indeed a unique figure in some ways, he did not accomplish anything alone. His achievements were done in cooperation with countless other people, a few who are famous to us and many unknown to us. As we approach Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 16, we are not only honoring him as an individual but also those countless people and the principles for which they stood and sacrificed.

In reflecting upon the ideas and ideals that drove Dr. King and that he communicated to us in both words and deeds, it is compelling for us here at DePaul to note Dr. King’s connection to personalism. We at DePaul, especially in the context of our mission, speak often of Vincentian personalism as a driving force in both the “why” and the “how” of what we do. Personalism is not a term that we take directly from Vincent but one that we have found fitting to describe the core values he lived and, perhaps even more so, the values that the men and women who have served the organizations he founded lived out under his inspiration and guidance. As a philosophical or theological term, it has been used in different ways by many different thinkers starting in the nineteenth century.[2] There are deep connections between Kingian and Vincentian personalism.[3]

As my opening quote illustrates, Dr. King’s understanding of personalism was at the heart of his understanding of the world. In a way that resonates with Vincent’s understanding and with our commitments here at DePaul, personalism defined how Dr. King saw God and how he saw human beings. Each human person was filled with dignity and worth. For King, as for Vincent, this dignity was honored more in practice and in relationship than in abstract philosophy or even theology. King famously hoped that after his life he would be remembered not for his education or awards but as someone who “tried to love somebody …to love and serve humanity.”[4]

For Saints Vincent and Louise and other Vincentians, just as for Dr. King and the countless other leaders and participants in the African American freedom struggle, the sacred insights of personal encounter and individual dignity led to a realization of the need for organization and movement for systemic change.[5] Above all, it led to an understanding that the material and spiritual needs of individuals can only be met in community. DePaul University has the size, resources, and organization to serve many people well. Still, at our best, our students experience DePaul through personal relationships in which they feel seen and honored, relationships in which they feel that they belong.[6]

Dr. King popularized the vision of a beloved community where the dignity of all could truly be honored. He identified the primary obstacles to making this a reality amid the evils of poverty, racism, and militarism.[7] The practice of personalism can give us not only a “why” and a “how” but hope and a deep faith in the purposefulness of our work. We embrace challenges along the way, profoundly trusting in the destination of our journey.

What inspirations do you take from the legacy of Dr. King, personally and professionally?

What challenges do you think these concepts invite us to address as DePaul?

Reflection by: Abdul-Malik Ryan, Asst. Director Religious Diversity & Pastoral Care, Muslim Chaplain

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 100.

[2] See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Personalism” by Thomas D. Williams and Jan Olof Bengtsson, 2022, and Wikipedia, s.v. “Personalism,” last modified December 27, 2022, 10:50,

[3] King and Vincent would both see all of these concepts as rooted in their shared Christianity and in the teaching and example of Jesus (peace be upon him), but the concepts have also been resonant and inspiring to many who are not Christian, including myself.

[4] See King’s sermon, The Drum Major Instinct, which he gave on February 4, 1968. For more on this, see:

[5] As Guillermo Campuzano, C.M., shared last year, “The systemic racial justice of Dr. King’s utopia is a Vincentian issue that we embrace from our own convictions and for our vocation. His dream is not strange to us. Our Vincentian sociology, theology, and anthropology naturally bring us to this cause. We are on the move, marching with God for a world free of hate.” See Campuzano, “Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘We are on the move now… Our God is marching on,’” The Way of Wisdom (blog), January 10, 2022,

[6] On the complementary relationship between Vincentian personalism and professionalism, see Mark Laboe, “Both/And: Vincentian Personalism and Professionalism,” The Way of Wisdom (blog), November 8, 2021,, and Edward R. Udovic, C.M., “Two Sides of One Vincentian Mission Coin: Personalism and Professionalism,” The Way of Wisdom (blog), January 10, 2019, https://‌blogs.‌depaul.‌edu/‌dmm/‌2019/‌01/10/two-sides-of-one-vincentian-mission-coin-personalism-and-professionalism/.

[7] “The Triple Evils,” The King Philosophy, The King Center, accessed January 5, 2023, https://‌thekingcenter.‌‌org/about-tkc/the-king-philosophy/.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We are on the move now… Our God is marching on”

“Today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now…. Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past, and Negroes and whites study side-by-side in the socially-healing context of the classroom.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. March 25, 1965[1]

The words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose memory we celebrate in the coming week, are an eloquent reminder for all races and ethnicities that dreams have not been defeated. This is not a post-utopian era. Utopias are alive in the hearts of all who struggle to build true democracies in which all people, especially the “most abandoned” (as Vincent de Paul called them), can finally live with dignity. The memory of Dr. King should always awaken a belief that a better world is still possible.

History is a continuum—in the utopia of yesterday, the reality of today was incubated, just as new realities will breathe from the utopias of today. The utopia of one century often becomes a simple fact of the next century. Utopian vision is the beginning of all true progress and the design of a better future. I believe it’s not too late to make real Dr. King’s utopia of a just world in which people of all cultures and races are treated equally and given the same opportunities to flourish.

In our encounters within the Vincentian Family, we constantly realize that our creativity is not exhausted and that we are still too far away from the realization of a world in which all forms of life are respected and protected. We must ensure ‘the most abandoned,’ as Vincent called them, are taken care of, and provided with everything they need to live with dignity.

In a 1965 sermon, Dr. King explained that the “majestic words” of the Declaration of Independence, “all [people] are created equal,” were the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement.[2] He did not see that document as a lie but as an unfulfilled promise, “raised to cosmic proportions,” that the movement was now struggling to realize. When we see the unbearable suffering of so many people in the United States, especially so many people of African descent, we understand the current challenges of the movement Dr. King championed.

DePaul University is built on top of this same foundation, this universal truth. Vincentian understanding recognizes the dignity of every human story, and especially those persons that are broken because of systemic injustice, structural poverty, inequity, exclusion, or social and racial discrimination. We recognize the essential equity among all human beings of so many diverse backgrounds.

In many places of the world, I have seen a growing movement of intersectional liberation and social transformation. We, the Vincentian Family, are bearers of just part of this seed of life that has been entrusted to all races, religions, cultures, social classes, and nations of the earth. This seed is hidden in the heart of the Vincentian charism, a charism that belongs to the reign of God and his justice. It is deeply connected with all the other seeds entrusted to humanity to make dignified life on our planet possible and sustainable. The vitality and relevance of the Vincentian spirit can only be guaranteed if a connection with this universal movement is kept alive.

The Vincentian charism is pro-cultural. We are at the crossroads of history alongside the excluded of the earth, and of the earth itself, and our horizon is the same that the universal movement of justice and peace envisions: “a new heaven and a new earth”![3] The systemic racial justice of Dr. King’s utopia is a Vincentian issue that we embrace from our own convictions and for our vocation. His dream is not strange to us. Our Vincentian sociology, theology, and anthropology naturally bring us to this cause. We are on the move, marching with God for a world free of hate. DePaul should be a school where the equitable new world is designed, where students of all racial identities and diverse cultural backgrounds come together “side-by-side in the socially-healing context of the classroom” as Dr. King envisioned in 1965. That is the dream.

In 2022, the memory of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can give us all the elements we need to understand that the emancipatory movement is urgent today and needs support from every angle. It is deeply connected with all social and environmental movements of liberation and transformation.

We are on the move, we cannot stop marching, and we won’t turn around now! We will continue resisting the hegemonic ego- and capital-centric narratives that are destroying our planet, making life unsustainable, and oppressing human beings. It is an urgent necessity that all human, social, and environmental movements of systemic change work together side by side to be effective. As Dr. King said, “The battle is in our hands. And we can answer with creative nonviolence the call to higher ground to which the new directions of our struggle summons us. The road ahead is not altogether a smooth one. There are no broad highways that lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. But we must keep going.”[4]

Reflection by: Guillermo Campuzano, C.M., Vice President, Division of Mission and Ministry

[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Our God is Marching On,” speech, March 25, 1965, Montgomery, AL, transcript, https://‌kinginstitute.‌stanford.‌‌edu/‌our-god-marching.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For biblical examples, see, e.g., Isaiah 65:17-19, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1, and Isaiah 66:22.

[4] Ibid.

Fighting for Civil Rights in a Fragile Democracy: The Vincentian Spirit and the Legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963


I am convinced that the very foundation of the Vincentian Spirit began with, and still demands, a specific approach to understanding reality. It is rooted in the experience of all those on the margins of society deprived of their essential rights to food, education, health care, clothing, and housing, as well as all victims of systemic injustice due to their race, sex, sexual orientation, social class or religion. In this sense, I believe that civil rights and democracy are Vincentian themes, and that in these two “signs of the times” we find a concrete Vincentian call for DePaul as an educational institution.

This week we celebrate the memory and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We are also witnessing a national transition of governmental power in the United States that has exposed the fragility of democracy. Governmental stability is necessary for the well-being of people living in poverty or on the margins, as social conflict, pandemics, and natural disasters always disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Vincent de Paul said that the most vulnerable are “our portion” in life, or our responsibility, our place, our call, and our ultimate vocation. (1)

I believe that the struggle to fully construct our democracy framed Dr. King’s call. He fought for civil rights based on the social contract of democracy—a system that demands we commit to preserve and expand the common good by recognizing and respecting the civil rights of all people as equal. Dr. King fought for the civil rights of Black people and communities in defense of, and to fulfill, the democratic dream that all are recognized and respected as equal in both rights and responsibilities. In the U.S., civil rights are to this day an unsettled issue, as the full incorporation of Black and Brown people into the life of the country is clearly unresolved.

Over the past four years we have seen that democracy is a dynamic—sometimes historic—human-made, socio-political system that is always changing. It therefore never seems to be fully functional. The democratic system demands constant monitoring and oversight to prevent the gradual erosion of its quality. In recent years, as democracy has become a domestic concern for the American people, the U.S. has shifted its priority from defending democracy abroad to scrutinizing itself. Our time of being recognized as the global defender and model of democracy seems to have been lost, and our current crisis is creating questions worldwide. Clearly, strengthening our democratic processes will not only benefit U.S. institutions and citizens, but also the international community.

When leaving the White House, President Barack Obama reminded us “citizenship is the most important position in a democracy.”(2) In the twenty-first century, committed citizens of the world continue to be confronted with the challenges of democracy—whether building it from the ground up, restoring it, preserving it in fragile or failed states, or improving the quality of it in so-called strong democracies like the U.S.

In our society the democratic principles that guarantee peace and prosperity are merged throughout the social, economic, and legal fabric. These principles can be found everywhere in the Constitution, and in the essential democratic underpinnings of human rights, fundamental freedoms, equal rights regardless of gender, freedom of speech, as well as in the elimination of differences of treatment on the basis of race, sex, language, social class, physical condition, sexual orientation, or religion. Dr. King clearly understood that non-racial discrimination is one of these essential principles, without which democracy is simply an unfulfilled dream.

We believe, as Dr. King did, that a fully-fledged democracy, with its legal and ethical basis, is a means to achieve peace, security, economic and social progress, sustainable development, and respect for the human rights of all. I am frightened when I read that more and more young people around the world think there are other means to achieve these goals. They see the failure of the political patriarchal model, the failure and corruption of politicians and political parties, and the severe dismantling of the foundations of our democratic process. For me, it is difficult to comprehend that the civil rights fight Dr. King faced over half-a-century ago, which happened in the context of U.S. democracy, reflects the current outcry for racial justice, and the current context of our democracy. What, then, does this say of our democracy?

DePaul University is a Vincentian institution dedicated to education. We are inspired and sustained by the Vincentian Spirit. The signs of the times are demanding we recognize what has been called “education for democracy” by the United Nations: “a broad concept which can help to inculcate democratic values and principles in a society, encouraging citizens to be informed of their rights and the existing laws and policies designed to protect them, as well as training individuals to become democratic leaders in their societies.”(3) Education for democracy involves an active effort to encourage the full participation of citizens in the different democratic processes. This kind of education demands we attend to the peaceful and non-violent coexistence of diverse societies, including access, equity, social justice, individual and institutional ethical behavior, checks and balances of power as well as individual rights and responsibilities.

Education is also critical in empowering citizens to hold accountable those politicians and political parties that hold positions of power, as well as the institutions designed to create laws and policies that safeguard the rights of all.

Founded in the Vincentian Spirit, DePaul needs to be committed, through its educational practice, to strengthen democratic citizenship and promote effective popular participation. As we celebrate Dr. King and hope for a peaceful and non-violent transition of national power, we must continue our fight for the civil rights of all. The peaceful transition of power is one of the essential principles of global democracy.

We must also not forget that in the U.S. the essential democratic right to vote is yet another unresolved issue. It is evident that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people’s access to free and equal voting opportunities are curtailed through mechanisms such as unjust purging of registered voter lists, lack of access to polling places, and long lines at those polling places that are still operational. We need to resolve this issue, among many others, to restore and protect the meaning of democracy in our nation.

The role of the Black community in the preservation of our democracy cannot be ignored. In recent elections the Black community, again, voted in huge numbers and, in many cases, under unfair conditions. They stood up once more to claim their rights, and in so doing, they helped all Americans regain a vision of the real meaning of democracy. As I remember and honor the life of Dr. King, I want to honor and praise the role of the Black community nationwide, which continues to fight for justice and democracy on so many fronts, and often at high personal cost. It is neither fair nor sustainable to expect Black Americans to continue to bear such a disproportionate burden in the fight for civil rights and upholding democracy.

All citizens are called to defend the principles of our democracy: equality, respect, responsibility, agency, and opportunity for all. But now, in this moment in history, I thank Black leaders like Dr. King for their legacy, the very many activist leaders working for justice today, and all Black Americans who continue the fight to uphold democracy. I thank you for your sacrifices, your contributions, and your critical victories. You are living evidence of the struggle to protect and the resilience to uphold our democracy.

1) Conference 180, Observance of the Rules, 17 May 1658, CCD, 12:4.

2) President Barack Obama, Farewell Address, 10 January 2017. See: https://‌obama‌whitehouse.‌‌farewell

3) Guidance Note of the Secretary-General on Democracy, United Nations, 2005. See: Guidance Note on Democracy

Other Bibliography

Campuzano, Guillermo, C.M., Personal Notes, 2018 United Nations meeting on Democracy.

“Conferencias de San Vicente de Paul,” Editorial CEME, XII:4.

King, Dr. Martin Luther, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). See: https://‌www.‌theatlantic.‌com/‌magazine/‌archive/2018/02/‌letter-from-a-birmingham-jail/552461/


Reflection By: Guillermo Campuzano, C.M., Vice President Division of Mission & Ministry