Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Beloved Community

On April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN.  A gifted Baptist minister and founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King led the civil rights movement beginning in the mid-1950s, using a combination of impassioned speeches and nonviolent protests to fight segregation and achieve significant civil-rights advances for African Americans. Ask anyone about Dr. King and you are bound to hear words first spoken in his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington. However, parts of this speech were spoken when Dr. King addressed over 125,000 people gathered two months earlier at the “Walk to Freedom” in Detroit.  This event was arranged to protest segregation in the South and inequities in wages, housing and education in the North.

Even fifty years after his death, Dr. King’s wisdom continues to teach us and provide guidance.  One of Dr. King’s writings that has not gotten the same type of exposure and recognition as the famous “I Have a Dream” speech is his “The Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/letter-birmingham-city-jail-0)  This powerful reflection was written in 1963 from a Birmingham jail cell after Dr. King and several other civil rights leaders were jailed after leading a Good Friday demonstration as part of the Birmingham Campaign.  In the transcript, Dr. King lifted up the notion of a beloved community, which has been, in various writings, supported by many as important to the ultimate goal of love and justice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke often of beloved community as a way of transforming people and relationships and creating communities grounded in reconciliation, friendship and human dignity. Key principles include nonviolence as powerful expressions of courage, understanding, trust and love.

Beloved community is not, however, devoid of tension, conflict or confrontation. Additionally, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King described the tendency for well-meaning people to be drawn to a “negative peace” which is the absence of tension. He encouraged instead movement toward “positive peace” which is the presence of justice. Positive peace and social justice demand a commitment to staying in dialogue with people across differences, even in the inevitable face of disagreements, misunderstanding and conflict.

We can work toward the beloved community if we work for justice and positive social change and focus our work at four levels:

Personal Level – All people have a sense of well-being, a sense of interconnectedness and a desire commitment to lifelong learning and change.

Personal Level – As we interact with each other, we work to draw out each other’s gifts, practice deep listening and compassion.  We are mutually accountable to support our learning across differences centered on transformation and change.

Institutional Level – Within our institutions, all leadership is valued and expressed, with policies, procedures and practices reflecting an understanding that everyone benefits from social justice based change.

Cultural Level – What is considered beautiful, truth, or normal reflects the diversity of all, not merely those with more power and privilege.  (Adapted in part from Women’s Theological Center – (http://www.thewtc.org)

Our ongoing collective work, across all human differences, toward positive peace, social justice and equitable outcomes for all, will continue to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. now and in the future. 

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