The “Beloved Community:” Aspiring to be a Truly Free and Self-Governing Society

As the Institute’s 11th anniversary, July 1, approached, I found myself thinking about the fact that democratic politics and policy-making are ultimately arbitrated by the character, norms, values and beliefs of the people who are entrusted with its practice. That is, the very survival of democratic governance is mediated by the culture in which it is ensconced. Perhaps no one in modern United States history understood that fact more deeply, nor articulated a clearer vision to secure the possibility of social justice and self-governance within that mediating culture, than Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I have had the memorable privilege in recent weeks of interacting with Dr. Virgil Wood, a long-time friend and colleague of King. Wood will serve as a Ridenour Distinguished Faculty Fellow in the School of Public and International Affairs here at Virginia Tech in the coming year. The Institute will help him organize a writing competition for college students on civil rights as well as assist in his efforts to continue developing a national coalition for community change and social justice. Wood routinely asks all with whom he speaks to ponder King’s vision for the United States to become a “beloved community.” As a result of our conversations, I have found myself reading about that construct in King’s writings, and have been much moved by the social and political ideal the concept represents. Here, I reflect briefly on what King’s vision portends for our country’s culture, and for its policy and politics. I also sketch several major trends that have appeared to sideline popular and political interest in such nation-building projects in recent decades.

King shared, revisited and refined his view of the beloved community on many occasions from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. In a keynote address opening the week-long Montgomery, Alabama Improvement Association Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change on December 3, 1956, for example, King suggested this social ideal implied the death knell for systematic inequality on the basis of race or any other characteristic:

Now it is true, if I may speak figuratively, that old man segregation is on his death-bed. But history has proven that social systems have a great last minute breathing power, and the guardians of a status-quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive. Segregation is still a fact in America. We still confront it in the South in its glaring and conspicuous forms. We still confront it in the North in its hidden and subtle forms. But if Democracy is to live, segregation must die. Segregation is a glaring evil. It is utterly unchristian. It relegates the segregated to the status of a thing rather than elevate him to the status of a person. [1]

In that same speech, King observed:

Finally, if we are to speed up the coming of the new age we must have the moral courage to stand up and protest against injustice wherever we find it. Wherever we find segregation we must have the fortitude to passively resist it. I realize that this will mean suffering and sacrifice. It might even mean going to jail. If such is the case we must be willing to fill up the jail houses of the South. It might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more honorable. … There is nothing in all the world greater than freedom. It is worth paying for; it is worth losing a job; it is worth going to jail for. I would rather be a free pauper than a rich slave. I would rather die in abject poverty with my convictions than live in inordinate riches with the lack of self-respect. [2]

The beloved community would be constituted by men and women willing to sacrifice their lives if necessary to secure the benefits of freedom and equality for themselves and their fellow citizens. In King’s conception, the singular aspiration for the nation should be political equality and freedom for all, and all should be prepared to work as one to help to ensure that possibility remained genuine for every one of the country’s citizens.

In 1957 King remarked,

Love is creative and redemptive, Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method is bitterness and chaos; the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. [3]

For King, if the aim was a society characterized by social and political equality and freedom, the means to realize and maintain it would be a disciplined love of humanity and the dignity that each individual represents. In his mind, the contrast between how citizens of a democratic nation should behave and humankind’s too frequent and dogged pursuit of avarice and vengeance was complete. In this respect, his vision was surely consonant with that of our nation’s Founders, who also saw humankind as a frail reed on which to predicate self-governance, but who nevertheless sought ways and means to secure just that possibility. King’s ideal married political and religious aspiration into a powerful concept that would support the aims of both in a seamless way. Put differently, in these and many other writings, Martin Luther King developed a construct that coupled individual freedom, social equality and opportunity for all Americans with a tough-minded assessment of just how difficult that would be to attain. Nonetheless, as a minister and theologian, throughout his life he remained deeply convinced that empathetic love could be the galvanizing agent for change. Nelson Mandela would later echo King’s passionate devotion to the ideal of human dignity when, in reflecting on why his 22-years of confinement by the South African apartheid regime had not left him hating his persecutors, he commented:

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. [4]

As with Mandela’s respect for humanity, King’s vision was elegant in its apparent simplicity and yet, as he (and Mandela) well knew, it also was supremely challenging to attain in a large and heterogeneous society in which major segments of the population remained unprepared to believe that all people were created equal. Nonetheless, he never wavered in his commitment to the possibility that the ideals of freedom, equality and social justice, encapsulated in the beloved community, could be realized. I have found myself reflecting on King’s undimmed hope as I have pondered several major trends that have shaped our society’s politics and policy-making since his murder in April of 1968:

  • We now are an even more deeply consumerist society than in 1968, abjured daily to believe that our personhood and dignity inhere not in our humanity, but instead in our possessions and perceived material success and how single-mindedly and callously we have pursued the same. Those in poverty or with less opportunities to gain material success are routinely regarded and despised by many Americans as losers, who deserve their circumstances.
  • That same capitalistic individualism has likewise allowed millions to confuse and conflate consumer choice with political freedom, leaving many increasingly unwilling to imagine themselves a part of any collective larger than themselves.
  • In consequence, we are now a people who increasingly find it difficult to share aspirations for our communities and nation as we worry constantly instead about our economic status and our fears for our individual futures.
  • Meanwhile, too, millions of Americans have shown themselves willing to support political leaders who represent neither love in King’s tough-minded terms, nor even comity, and who have won power in large measure by exploiting fear and scapegoating and slandering one group after another.
  • Many Americans now view taxes as claims to be avoided, and many venerate and extol the rich for doing just that. For many, too, the wealthy are to be revered because they are rich, however they acquired that standing.
  • Finally, we are increasingly a society so segregated by class, income and race (ironically, markedly more so now than in King’s lifetime) that many Americans rarely interact with anyone who does not resemble themselves. In such a society, it becomes difficult to imagine the possibility that those quite unlike you might still merit your respect and be your equal in political and social terms.

This brief catalog of trends suggests the broader point of whether many of this nation’s citizens see themselves as pursuing a shared ideal of freedom and self-governance characterized by social and political equality for all Americans; that is, the prospect of the beloved community. Ideals, attained or not, can ennoble and enliven, can lift one’s eyes to something beyond self. It seems to me that any self-governing nation must do this if it is to ensure freedom and possibility for all of its citizens. It strikes me, too, that King’s vision for our society is as appropriate now as when he first articulated it. The beloved community constitutes an expansive view of the possibilities inherent in humankind united in self-governance and in pursuit of justice by a free and equal people. It opens, rather than forecloses possibilities, even as it requires that all people respect the dignity of all.

The United States is now full flush in the midst of an identity crisis wrought by rapid economic and social change. One may hope this nation can recommit itself to a shared aspiration of what it may become. Martin Luther King’s bracing vision surely provides a suitable end for that process for anyone who takes the time to explore the elemental truths it embodies. In so many ways, King’s vision of the beloved community is one for the ages as it reflects fundamental propositions essential for a democratic policy-politics. It seems especially fitting for the Institute, whose remit is to concern itself with just such matters, to be involved in a fresh examination of the power and human possibility that the ideal of the beloved community represents.

Notes

[1] King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume 3: Birth of a New Age, December 1955-December 1956, https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218223303/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/papers/vol3/561203.000-Facing_the_Challenge_of_a_New_Age,_annual_address_at_the_first_annual_Institute_on_Nonviolence_and_Social_Change.htm Accessed, June 15, 2017.

[2] King, “Facing the Challenge of a New Age.”

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Quotes about the ‘Beloved Community,’” We Are the Beloved Community, website. http://www.wearethebelovedcommunity.org/bcquotes.html Accessed June 15, 2017.

[4] Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom (New York: Back Bay Books, 1995), p.622.