Completing Dr. King's Unfinished Dream of a Beloved Community
Last updated: January 14, 2022, at 4:02 p.m. PT
Originally published: January 10, 2022, at 5:04 p.m. PT
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963.
By. David L. Humphrey Jr., Ph.D
Hanging on the wall in my office at the Y is a copy of the “I Have a Dream” speech that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Some 250,000 people gathered for the March on Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963 – a one-day protest against racial discrimination to encourage Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. If you have never read or listened to Dr. King’s speech, or if it has been a while since you have read it, I strongly encourage you to do so.
Each time I read Dr. King’s speech, I am reminded that the struggle for equality continues.
I am consistently struck by his way with words, and his uncanny use of metaphors to accurately portray the feelings of people of color, then and now. I am also aware that in contemporary society, many have made the mistake of romanticizing and diluting Dr. King's ideals – even the words and intentions of the “I Have a Dream” speech, which Dr. King asserted had become a nightmare in a 1967 interview with then NBC News correspondent Sander Vanocur.
His fiery sermon of nearly 50 years ago is now reinterpreted and repurposed by people from across the ideological spectrum, often recasting his words to better serve their own agendas.
To some, listening to Dr. King's "I Have a Dream” speech through a narrow lens suggests a toned-down message of sitting with little Black boys and Black girls, joining hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers as the only goal. This simplification makes it possible to claim racism is dead, that sins of the past remain in the past, that a white man sitting next to a Black man means any remaining issues are imagined, a fault of your own, not systemic and not worth addressing as a nation.
However, this is inaccurate and harmful to Dr. King's legacy and a misappropriation of his words.
The joining of hands was a goal, but not the root goal. In fact, this joining of hands was a byproduct of fostering and cultivating the Beloved Community, the idea that if we are to achieve a truly equitable and just community, then a strong foundation of economic and social justice must be established first. Without an understanding of the Beloved Community and the responsibilities required, any efforts will result in good intentions, but with the same potentially disastrous results.
To Dr. King, fundamental to the Beloved Community was the thought that our destinies, our mere existence, and even our liberation is intertwined. This is why Dr. King argued that no one is free unless we are all free.
Dr. King's idea of the Beloved Community is not grounded in a color-blind ideology that deemphasizes difference and chooses comfort over tension, preferring rather to live in homogeneity than living and finding comfort and rhythm in diversity, uniqueness, and distinctiveness, and as a result, authenticity. The Beloved Community is a calling to live in the tension of being comfortable with the uncomfortable; to commit to doing the hard work of relational and social reconciliation, mutuality, and reciprocity bent towards exorcising the United States and the world of what Dr. King called the triple evils of poverty (materialism), racism, and militarism.
In April 1957, Dr. King delivered the sermon “The Birth of a New Nation” to friends and supporters at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, following his return from a first-hand experience of Ghana's independence from British colonialism. He stated, “the aftermath of non-violence is the creation of the Beloved Community. The aftermath of non-violence is redemption. The aftermath of non-violence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence are emptiness and bitterness.”
Reconciliation, the crux of the Beloved Community, requires an expectation to be changed when you enter into a relationship with another. Inter-group, inter-ethnic, all interactions with whom society calls the Other are an opportunity to be exposed to dimensions of truth previously unknown to us. Crucial to a Beloved Community, inner transformation, and the work of equity and justice is a sensitivity, an openness to the uniqueness of the Other.
Such sensitivity first interrogates the prejudices and foreknowledge we bring to the space in order to be open to being transformed; rather, enlarged by the revelation that the Other’s identities, experiences, and history reveals – about them and about you.
To put it another way: reconciliation is not merely a call to develop friends across identity lines.
To reduce reconciliation to friendship is to divest it of its potency and profundity. Rather, a life of reconciliation is to acknowledge that the identities and perspectives of the person we are engaging with causes a shift in our own identities, experiences, and perspectives.
On this MLK Day, a day we commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King, let us also hear his words in a fuller light and use this day as a call to listen and act - an invitation to incarnate the values and ideas brought forth through the testimony and grand, utopic vision of Dr. King’s Beloved Community concept, which should compel intentional service and engagement with, and in, our communities.
At the Y, MLK Day is a day of action, a day to reinforce the Ys commitment to service, civic engagement and volunteerism as a driver for addressing key social justice issues within our programs and efforts.
During the weekend of January 10-17, Walk with us and help make this MLK Day an impactful one for all. Join us as a volunteer.
There are a multitude of ways to get involved. Sign up and we look forward to seeing you there:
- Help build hygiene kits for those who are houseless and in need. You can build them at home and drop them off at the Snoqualmie Valley YMCA during regular operating hours from January 10-17.
- Donate hygiene kit items and help assemble and/or deliver hygiene kits with the Bellevue Family YMCA. Drop off hygiene kit items during Bellevue Y operating hours January 10-17. Register to assemble and deliver kits on January 17.
- Meredith Mathews East Madison YMCA will host a community meet before walking together to Garfield High School to participate in a rally and march for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on January 17.
- Fight hunger at the Coal Creek Family YMCA by volunteering with a Backpack Meal Program Packing event on January 17. You’ll help us prepare backpack meals for kids who identify as being homeless in our community. Backpacks are filled with food that is child-friendly, nutritious, non-perishable, and easy to eat.
- The Sammamish Community YMCA will be doing light yard work and window washing at Friendly Village Mobile Homes, serving Friendly Village residents who are 55 and older from 10am-2pm on January 17.
Please consider participating in these events - your volunteerism makes an impact. Register today
If you can’t make it out to one of these events, we recognize that you may want to participate in learning, celebrating and honoring Dr. King in other ways virtually. We have created an online learning curriculum that provides resources, articles, and interactive questions for all ages, children and adults!
In any way, big and small, there’s a way to get involved, get educated, and get active!
David L. Humphrey Jr., Ph.D. is a Senior Vice President and Equity and Justice Officer with the Y's Equity & Justice Center of Excellence. Learn more about his work.