Martin Luther King’s Vision of the Beloved Community
by Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr.
Dr. Smith is on the faculty at Colgate Rochester/Bexley Hall/Crozer in Rochester, New York. Dr. Zepp is dean of the chapel and assistant professor of religion at Western Maryland College. This article is adapted from their book Search for the Beloved community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King. Jr. (Copyright © 1974 by Judson Press, Valley forge, Pennsylvania.) This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 3, 1974, pp. 361-363. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found atwww.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Central to the thinking of Martin Luther King was the concept of the "Beloved Community." Liberalism and personalism provided its theological and philosophical foundations, and nonviolence the means to attain it. True, King’s initial optimism about the possibility of actualizing that community in history was in time qualified by Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism. But the concept as such can be traced through all his speeches and writings, from the earliest to the last. In one of his first published articles he stated that the purpose of the Montgomery bus boycott "is reconciliation, . . . redemption, the creation of the beloved community." In 1957, writing in the newsletter of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he described the purpose and goal of that organization as follows: "The ultimate aim of SCLC is to foster and create the ‘beloved community’ in America where brotherhood is a reality. . . . SCLC works for integration. Our ultimate goal is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living -- integration." And in his last book he declared: "Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation . . ."
King’s was a vision of a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice wherein brotherhood would be an actuality in all of social life. In his mind, such a community would be the ideal corporate expression of the Christian faith.
A Vision of Total Relatedness
Integration, as King understood it, is much more inclusive and positive than desegregation. Desegregation is essentially negative in that it eliminates discrimination against blacks in public accommodations, education, housing and employment -- in those aspects of social life that can be corrected by laws. Integration, however, is "the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes in the total range of human activities." But King did not believe that the transition from desegregation to integration would be inevitable or automatic. Whereas desegregation can be brought about by laws, integration requires a change in attitudes. It involves personal and social relationships that are created by love -- and these cannot be legislated. Once segregation has been abolished and desegregation accomplished, blacks and whites will have to learn to relate to each other across those nonrational, psychological barriers which have traditionally separated them in our society. All of us will have to become color blind. As King said, desegregation will only produce "a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts apart. It gives us social togetherness and spiritual apartness. It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness." But integration will bring in an entirely different kind of society whose character is best summed up in the phrase "Black and White Together" -- the title of one of the chapters of Why We Can’t Wait and the theme of one stanza of the civil rights movement’s hymn "We Shall Overcome." Integration will enlarge "the concept of brotherhood to a vision of total interrelatedness."
Behind King’s conception of the Beloved Community lay his assumption that human existence is social in nature. "The solidarity of the human family" is a phrase he frequently used to express this idea. "We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," he said in one of his addresses. This was a way of affirming that reality is made up of structures that form an interrelated whole; in other words, that human beings are dependent upon each other. Whatever a person is or possesses he owes to others who have preceded him. As King wrote: "Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally ‘in the red.’ " Recognition of one’s indebtedness to past generations should inhibit the sense of self-sufficiency and promote awareness that personal growth cannot take place apart from meaningful relationships with other persons, that the "I" cannot attain fulfillment without the "Thou."
King saw the participants in the civil rights movement as representing the Beloved Community in microcosm. The people who attended the movement’s mass meetings and rallies, joined in its demonstrations, and supported its aims in many other ways came from every section of American society. The educated and the illiterate, the affluent and the welfare recipient, white and black -- men and women who heretofore had been separated by rigid social and legal codes were brought together in a common cause. Indeed, since King wanted to make the base of the movement as broad as possible, he frequently called upon whites for help in his various campaigns.
Justice for Everyone
After the March to Montgomery in the spring of 1966, several thousand marchers were delayed at the airport because their planes were late. As King tells it, he was deeply impressed by the heterogeneity yet the obvious unity of the crowd:
As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids and shopworkers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the mankind of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood [Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Harper & Row, 1967)’ p. 9]
In King’s view, the interrelatedness of human existence means that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." He believed that denial of constitutional rights to anyone potentially violates the rights of all. It is the entire national community that is the victim of electric cattle prods and biting police dogs. Discrimination against 10 per cent of our population weakens the whole social fabric. Race and poverty are not merely sectional problems but American problems. It follows that the liberation of black people will also mean the emancipation of white people. King took seriously the indivisibility of human existence. "In a real sense," he wrote, "all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly" (ibid., p. 181).
His approach to human existence led King to believe that in seeking to eliminate racial injustice, the civil rights movement was making a far larger contribution to the national life. Integration is usually associated solely with the struggle for racial equality, but King conceived of it in a much broader way. He envisioned a future society in which persons would not be malformed as a result of racial hatred or economic exploitation. That is, King was not concerned about justice for blacks as opposed to justice for whites; he was concerned about justice for everyone. And he made perfectly clear what he meant by that:
Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized. . . . Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the Third World of Asia, Africa and Latin America will no longer be the victims of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy and disease ["Honoring Dr. Du Bois," in Freedomways, VIII, s (Spring 1968), pp. 110-111].
Plainly, King’s vision of justice included all the world’s poor -- blacks, whites, browns and reds: North and South Americans, Africans, Asians and Europeans. Economic justice, he held, is a right of the entire human race. He was aware too that securing this right for all would require elimination of the structures of economic injustice characteristic of capitalism.
Alleviating Economic Inequity
King’s views on this entire question grew out of his early championship of an egalitarian, socialistic approach to wealth and property. "A life," he wrote, "is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man." He repeatedly condemned the United States’ economic system for withholding the necessities of life from the masses while heaping luxuries on the few. One of our major goals, he declared, should be to bridge the gap between abject poverty and inordinate wealth. To this end he began, during the latter part of his life, to advocate a variety of economic programs, including the creation of jobs by government and the institution of a guaranteed annual minimal income. He was impatient with phrases like "human dignity"’ and "brotherhood of man" when they did not find concrete expression in the structures of society.
The point is that King believed it was God’s intention that everyone should have the physical and spiritual necessities of life. He could not envision the Beloved Community apart from the alleviation of economic inequity and the achievement of economic justice. Harvey Cox has aptly pointed out that King combined with this emphasis two traditional biblical themes: the "holiness of the poor" and the "blessed community." In the movement King led, blacks were the embodiment of "the poor" and integration represented the vision of "the holy community." Cox explains:
It is . . . essential to notice that the two elements, the holy outcast and the blessed community, must go together. Without the vision of restored community, the holiness ascribed to the poor would fall far short of politics and result in a mere perpetuation of charity and service activities’’ [On Not Leaving It to the Snake (Macmillan, 1967). P. 133].
Pilgrimage to the Promised Land
In speaking about the possibility of actualizing the Beloved community in history, King attempted to avoid what he called "a superficial optimism" upon the on hand, and "a crippling pessimism" on the other. He knew that the solution of social problems is a slow process. At the same time, he was confident that, through God’s help and human effort, social progress could be made. He said in a definitive passage:
Although man’s moral pilgrimage may never reach a destination point on earth, his never-ceasing strivings may bring him ever closer to the city of righteousness. And though the Kingdom of god may remain not yet as universal reality in history, in the present it may exist in such isolated forms as in judgment, in personal devotion, and in some group life. . . . Above all, we must be reminded anew that God is at work in his universe. lie is hot outside the world looking on within a. son of cold indifference. . . . As we struggle to defeat the forces of evil, the God of the universe struggles with us. Evil dies on the seashore, not merely because of man’s endless struggle against it, but because of God’s power to defeat it [Struggle to Love (Harper & Row, 1961). p. 64].
Thus, though acutely aware that the Beloved Community is "not yet," but in the future -- perhaps even the distant future -- Martin Luther King believed that it would eventually be actualized, and already lie saw approximations of it. That is why he worked unceasingly for the realization of his dream and never lost hope that "there will be a great camp meeting in the promised land’ His hope was rooted in his faith in the power of God to achieve his purpose among humankind within history.