Tomorrow we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although we celebrate this year on January 16, today is his actual birthday. He was born here in Atlanta on January 15, 1929. If he were alive today he would be 88.
Dr. King was a visionary who taught us so much about community and the ties that bind us together in our common humanity. As we prepare to remember him and his work, I’d like to talk about community, of what he called the Beloved Community.
Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, nearly 50 years ago. It is hard to believe. As we know, when great men or women pass and reality moves into legend, we lose touch with how they lived their lives, how they actually walked and lived with us. Selective memory sets in, and soon all we remember are the highlights, the victories, the great speeches and the grand moments. We don’t remember the dark times, the doubts, those moments when failure seemed possible, the moments when these great figures seem most like the rest of us. Hindsight, and the reverence we accord these figures, lead us to believe that their victories were foregone conclusions.
However, the greatness of these individuals, and the greatness of Dr. King, comes from his journey through a time when victory was not cast in stone. He didn’t always know if he was doing the right thing. He doubted, he feared, he felt alone, he faltered. But he persevered, and as he did his spirituality deepened, his connection with God began to hum with energy. His connection with what we call source deepened because he went through those valleys and came to know in his deepest soul that he was not walking through them alone.
He moved from abstract, polite theology to direct and profound experience of God. As he traveled through jail, bombings, arrests and assaults on himself and his family, his growing conviction of the living presence of God led him to know that he had no choice but to stand for the transformational power of love in the face of hate, violence and even death. The power of love, he came to know, would one day defeat the powers of separation and fear, and bring us all into the circle of the Beloved Community.
We still seek to build that Beloved Community. Today, nearly fifty years after Dr. King was taken from us, we are still called to be courageous voices of compassion, inclusion and love as we build a world in which all are respected and welcomed.
It isn’t easy, we know. We live in difficult and fearful times – we too often see those around us willing to demonize “the other” in order to give themselves a false sense of safety, and we may feel the temptation to do so as well. However, this is the path of fear, a road that leads nowhere.
Dr. King lived through moments of fear, certainly. He was the target of relentless hatred and violence both threatened and actual. However, we celebrate him today because he made a choice to love despite fear, and in so doing showed us the power of reconciliation, healing and hope.
His awakening was gradual, as it is for many. When Dr. King first arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, to pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the year was 1954 and his goal was to grow the church “to such heights as will stagger the imagination of generations yet unborn.” As author Charles March wrote “Civil rights activism was not high on the agenda.”
And then, on December 1, 1955, an African American seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus to a white passenger. She was arrested and ultimately convicted.
Following Ms. Parks’ arrest, the leadership of the African American community formed a committee to organize what everyone thought would be a brief boycott of the Montgomery city buses. Dr. King, approached to lead this effort, declined on the grounds that he had pressing church work to do. It was only after his good friend Ralph Abernathy continued to press that Dr. King consented to take the position, fully expecting the situation to resolve quickly. The group he led became the Montgomery Improvement Association and the bus boycott lasted 382 days.
Dr. King’s awakening to his calling began with that boycott and the struggle that accompanied it. His growth was gradual. The demands the MIA first presented to the authorities included only courteous treatment by city bus drivers, continued segregated seating but an elimination of the requirement that African Americans give up their seats to whites, and the hiring of African Americans as city bus drivers in predominantly African American sections of Montgomery. The MIA didn’t want to offend, to go too far. The boycott leaders took pains to make sure city officials knew the African American community did not seek integration.
This approach didn’t work. As the boycott continued, white city fathers became more draconian, arresting drivers for giving rides to those boycotting the buses, threatening white families who gave rides to those who worked for them. The police dispersed those waiting for rides on city street corners, cracked down on cab drivers who didn’t charge full fare, arrested people on trumped up charges of loud talking, walking on lawns, or, in the case of maids waiting for cabs, congregating in white neighborhoods. Do you see how fear builds?
The mayor of Montgomery announced he was joining the White Citizens Council, a white supremacy organization formed in Mississippi two months after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. He announced that the protesters were after no less than “the destruction of our social fabric.”
The tactics of fear and oppression started to work. Some protesters backed out – the boycott was taking too much of a toll, they didn’t think it would succeed. We even saw the employment of fake news – the city put out a release that three ministers representing the MIA had reached a settlement with the city, and the Montgomery Advertiser, a major city paper, ran it as a front page story in the Sunday edition, writing that the boycott was over and riders should resume riding the buses the following day. The goal was to cause massive confusion as African Americans around the city headed to church on Sunday.
It didn’t work – Dr. King found out about the plan from journalist Carl Rowan, who learned of it and alerted Dr. King on Saturday. Dr. King drove all over town letting protesters know there was no settlement and the boycott continued on Monday uninterrupted.
By the end of January 1956 the boycott was starting to crack and Dr. King despaired. He didn’t know how to proceed, how to communicate with those in control. He still believed that a negotiated resolution was possible; he continued to think he could reason with hatred, fear and violence. He had been playing small, and the situation had continued to go downhill.
Do you see the connection? To paraphrase Albert Einstein, you can’t change a situation by continuing to play by the rules that created it.
On January 26 Dr. King was arrested for driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone, and was incarcerated. It was his first arrest of many more. Upon his arrival, he was placed into a holding cell crowded with people excited to see him. He wrote “from that night on, my commitment to the struggle for freedom was stronger than ever. Yes, the night of injustice was dark; the “get tough” policy was taking its toll. But in the darkness I could see a radiant star of unity.”
He was released that night. The following evening, as he came home after a long day of meetings, he received an anonymous telephone call full of profanity, as well as a threat that “before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” At that point he was getting thirty to forty such calls a day, and he worried about the safety of his wife and infant daughter.
He writes that he was overcome with fear, and started pacing the floor searching for “a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.” He was ready to give up – all his resources were tapped out. He wrote “something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.”
He put his head in his hands and said out loud:
“Lord I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership and if I stand before them without strength and courage they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
He then writes that he heard a voice, a voice that said “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you. Even unto the end of the world.”
An amazing event, lifting him up when he was at his lowest. He wrote “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Three days after this experience, he abandoned his gradualist approach and began to demand immediate integration. He apologized that he had not taken this step against the evils of segregation earlier.
That same day, as he addressed an audience at the First Baptist Church, he began to speak in support of what he would later call the Beloved Community. He said “we are a chain. We are linked together, and I cannot be what I ought to be unless you are what you ought to be.” The movement was joined by more than shared goals or strategy – the community represented the love of God in lived reality.
During that speech, he received word that the threat of the caller three days earlier had been realized and his home had been bombed. When he got home, he saw that his wife and baby daughter were uninjured. A crowd had gathered, the police had arrived, and the mayor and the chief of police were in his living room talking to reporters. The situation threatened to turn violent and ugly.
He stood on his porch, with a hole blasted into it, and told the crowd to take their weapons home if they had them and leave them at home if they were inclined to get them. He said
“We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.
We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”
Civil rights activist and author Jo Ann Robinson recalls that as he spoke a hush came over the crowd. Even the police quieted and listened. Author Charles Marsh writes “King’s words and the congregation’s response drew together the parsonage and the street and wrapped the expanse of the Montgomery night into a unifying evocation of peace.”
Dr. King’s stance for nonviolent reconciliation, even in the face of such violence, turned a night of potential injury and death into a demonstration of peace.
The bombing was a turning point for Dr. King. This moment in which the power of love turned aside the certainty of violence showed him the absolute limitation of the power of fear and hatred. His wife and daughter had nearly been killed, his house nearly destroyed, and he refused to hate. With his very body he demonstrated the power of love.
His words reached a common chord in the hearts of all there, a common knowing that love is our true nature and will prevail when we have the courage, or are led, to put aside fear.
He also experienced the power of community that night. As he spoke and the crowd listened, as that energy hummed between them and around them, a moment of peace arose and enveloped them all. That experience of community demonstrated the living reality of Spirit on earth, even just for that brief moment.
From that time on, from that glimpse of possibility, Dr. King understood and taught that the living reality of God on earth will be expressed in the creation of the Beloved community. We express God in our loving welcome of each other.
This love is what we know as “agape” love – not sentimental, not romantic. Dr. King described the love that builds Beloved Community as an “overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative”…”the love of God operating in the human heart.” He said that “agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…it begins by loving others for their sakes” and “makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both…agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.”
How do we build such community, today and now?
What is your answer to this question? Here is mine – we build it by committing ourselves to love, even when it’s so difficult and it looks like we’re wasting our time. We do it by committing to the principles of nonviolence and reconciliation in our actions, words, and intentions. We do it when we move past the need to win, and instead seek to include former enemies in our circle of friendship.
Does this mean we abandon our principles of justice, equality, and the dignity of all people? That we let injustice and hatred pass unchallenged, out of a misguided notion that love means the absence of conflict?
Not at all – on the contrary, it means we advocate for these principles, and for each other, more constantly and more courageously. Beloved community cannot happen in the face of discrimination, hatred, or violence. Dr. King called for a “powerful love” that would build a world in which all are safe, fed, educated, and healed. We are called to build it, and we do not love when we stand on the sidelines watching others suffer the effects of injustice and inequality.
But we don’t do it by working to defeat those who oppose us; we do it by working to include them. Defeat creates bitterness, resentment, and a desire for vengeance. Beloved community calls for the creation of new relationship that brings home to us all the promise of peace, prosperity, and community. At times we glimpse the possibility of that community, as Dr. King felt on that night in January of 1956.
Let me end with a quote from Dr. King:
The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.
As we move into this new year, let’s commit to do our part to make the Beloved Community a living truth. Are you in?
This blog is based on Rev. Melanie’s talk on January 15, 2017.
You can listen to the entire talk on our website or on YouTube at our One World Spiritual Center channel.
Blog by Rev. Melanie Eyre
Spiritual Leader, One World Spiritual Center
 Charles March, The Beloved Community – How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From The Civil Rights Movement to Today, Basic Books, 2005. The quotes in this talk are taken from this book, which I recommend to those looking for additional insights into Dr. King’s faith journey and its expression in his life of courageous social action.