Building the Beloved Community

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was never more of a moral warrior, and never more deeply committed to nonviolence, than when he was approaching the end of his life. He did not see these stances as inconsistent, but as prerequisites for each other. Some claimed that nonviolence died with Dr. King. Quite the contrary. In the United States and around the world, from Eastern Europe to the Philippines to South Africa, nonviolent direct action flexed its muscle during the last third of the twentieth century.(1)

King was convinced that assertive nonviolent action, which he liked to call soul force, was not only more ethical than violence but more effective, especially long-term. He did not think that violent methods had ever been truly effective, whether in the Civil War, which left its legacy of wretched white supremacy, in global warfare, or in ghetto riots. In just six decades since its “invention” by Gandhi in 1906, mass nonviolent action in King’s view had proven more successful than six millennia of human violence. This was partly because it did not leave bitterness behind to haunt future generations. It stymied the law of the multiplication of evil. He aspired to create the moral equivalent of civil war, whose just reconciliation would not give lie to Lincoln’s malice toward none, charity for all.

King believed that soul force—the synthesis of justice and compassion, of faith and understanding, of social and personal rebirth—was rooted in ancient wisdom but geared to the future of human evolution. Soul force required the fire of faith and moral passion not only to break down the walls of inhumanity, but to forge the new person: a free person whose emotional capacity would be as mature as her intellect, whose mental and emotional being, rather than sabotaging each other, would coalesce into a more enlightened creature who more truly reflected the image of God. Soul force would deliver as well the beloved community, knit together by compassionate understanding, heartfelt communication, bonds of human intimacy.

But however strong his faith, King had grave concerns about what was to come. He believed that the Poor People’s Campaign—he somehow knew it was to be his last—would demonstrate whether creative nonviolent action would prove to be the dominant instrument of social change for the future. (2) Or, would it be thrust aside by armed struggle on one side, and people’s anomie and “timid supplication” on the other?

Let us transplant King’s anguish onto the uncertain terrain of our new century. Will we inherit a future brokered by self-righteous terrorists, official or unofficial, and by masses of disempowered consumers alienated from the world and their own souls, terrified to their bones?

We who claim the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. must cling to the life raft of nonviolence, in word and deed, in passion and compassion, as determinedly as he did during the last years of his life.

The alternative is unspeakable.

(1) Although the media spotlighted the minority who turned to violence, a growing number of American activists firmly embraced nonviolent action. During its most successful phase (1969-72), the antiwar movement, which broadened into the mainstream, engaged

in exemplary nonviolent protest on a large scale. As President Nixon confessed in his memoir, these actions forced him to bring the troops home and move toward serious negotiations, which eventually ended the decade-long conflict. In the late 1970s and 1980s mass nonviolent action reached new heights with the campaigns against nuclear energy and weapons, marches for women’s rights and gay and lesbian liberation, and in the 1990s with “million man” and “million woman” marches in Washington. Environmental activism and the movement for global justice appeared to be carrying on this tradition into the twenty-first century.

On the world stage, nonviolent action looked even more promising. The relatively nonviolent French revolt of May 1968 was accompanied by the peacefully explosive “Prague spring,” that despite being crushed by Soviet tanks in August presaged the velvet revolutions and the Cold War’s end twenty years later. Western Europeans mounted colossal protests against U.S. and Soviet first-strike nuclear missiles in the 1980s. Nonviolent direct action inspired by King and the American movements swept through Eastern Europe and into the Philippines, China, Tibet, Burma, and (ultimately) South Africa, and other countries less noticed.

(2) Determined to fulfill their slain leader’s will, the mule-train army of the poor arrived at the National Mall in mid-May 1968. Hundreds of many-hued souls set up a shantytown of canvas and plywood on the south side of the reflecting pool between the Lincoln

Memorial and the Washington Monument. They christened their new community Resurrection City. SCLC leaders hammered out a comprehensive manifesto of demands for economic justice. PPC activists led by SCLC lobbied Congress and Cabinet departments week after week for their Bill of Economic and Social Rights to end poverty. None blocked streets or bridges, as had been feared; occasional acts of civil disobedience were carefully controlled. There was no violence.

Bayard Rustin agreed to take charge of organizing a massive march on Washington for late June, hoping it to be an encore of his masterpiece of August 1963. But everything had changed in that epic half decade. Rustin resigned in a tiff with the tense new SCLC hierarchy over the demands, and the march was underwhelming. Racial tensions surfaced in Resurrection City, compounded by inadequate provisions. Punishing rains conspired with human foibles to make the flooded encampment inhospitable, the beleaguered residents soaked with mud. Police forcibly evicted them in early July. The poor, who always seemed to lose, were routed once again.

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