By Jihan McDonald and Mike Tinoco
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” These unapologetic, damning words were said by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination.
King was giving his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in which he lambasted the United States (1) for inflicting catastrophic, devastating violence and suffering in Vietnam. King further indicts the U.S. in this speech for exploiting its poor people back home by “sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem” and by having them “kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”
King said that he could “not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor,” and he argued that we must “shift from a thing-oriented society”—weaponry, profits, technology—and move toward a “people-oriented society” that prioritizes human dignity, relationships, and justice. He recognized the interconnected nature of injustice and oppression; he emphatically believed that the fight against racism was intertwined with the struggle against extreme materialism and poverty, which was inextricably linked to the fight against militarism and war. We could not get rid of one without simultaneously addressing the others.
The Radical King
King’s words ricocheted throughout the country, and criticism was swift and harsh. He was rebuked by the media (2), including the The New York Times, who claimed that “to divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating.” His relationship with President Johnson, whom he had previously worked with to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, crumbled (3).
He was even criticized by allies and associates from within his inner circle (4), who believed that he was jeopardizing gains made in the Civil Rights Movement. Many distanced themselves from King’s firm stance on the war, including the NAACP, who issued a public statement opposing merging the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war, peace movement.
The public’s support for King also waned significantly. At one point, in 1968, he had a 75 percent disapproval rating (5). His denunciation of the Vietnam War, people’s growing skepticism of nonviolence as a means for liberation, and the rise of the Black Power movement all contributed to an image of an outdated, “irrelevant” King (6).
King’s unpopularity and negative image were, no doubt, fueled in part by frequent attacks that he was a communist “extremist” and “outside agitator” who “instigated violence.” The FBI, who had secretly surveilled King for several years under J. Edgar Hoover’s watch, referred to him as “the most dangerous Negro leader of the future in this Nation” and even tried to not-so-subtly pressure him to take his own life (7).
Although the last year of King’s life was extraordinarily isolating and taxing, taking a toll on his emotional, physical, and mental health, his unequivocal stance against the war and his commitment to nonviolence never wavered (8).
Today, we rightfully celebrate King. But how we have chosen to honor—and remember—his legacy has distorted the radical vision he lived by and lived for.
The ubiquitous image of Martin Luther King Jr. that has come to permeate our collective imagination is one of a calm, benevolent martyr who advocated for peaceful protest, loving one’s enemies, and a world wherein children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
But what we have forgotten is King’s unapologetic condemnation of the United States for its hypocrisy of espousing freedom, justice, and democracy yet failing to uphold these ideals for all of its people. He fervently believed that the oppressive status quo must be disrupted and transformed in order to build the Beloved Community.
Roots of Beloved Community
The Beloved Community is one that is by definition diverse, equitable, and inclusive. King’s vision was both broader and deeper than politics or even society, per se—it was cultural, it was concerned with the way we live our daily lives. It was also essentially metaphysical and spiritual.
King’s vision of Beloved Community was inspired by the Community of Interpretation as described by theologian Josiah Royce (9). Quite well regarded in the philosophical and religious spheres of his time, Royce is considered the founder of major thought movements like Boolean algebra, and the leading proponent of Absolute Idealism. His work would have been accessible to King through his seminary and pastoral studies.
Absolute Idealism posits “that all aspects of reality, including those we experience as disconnected or contradictory, are ultimately unified in the thought of a single all-encompassing consciousness.” To Royce, this meant that all of humanity, in communion with the rest of the natural world, is interconnected and therefore accountable to each other; it meant that we are responsible for co-creating reality. In his earlier thought he attributed human unification to the creation of a metaphysical superbeing; as his thoughts evolved he began to envision a Universal Community, “an infinite community of interpretation guided by a shared spirit of truth-seeking” (10). This Community constitutes reality as we know it and no one is excluded from it.
Royce was, at heart, a pragmatist and his theology was intended to be applied to daily life, not abstracted or separated from it. Being a member of the Universal Community, also alternatively called The Community of Interpretation, called for a deep loyalty and allyship in thought and purpose and it was a loyalty to be lived. While he was not an activist, Royce was a thinker ahead of his time who pushed conventional religious and social boundaries of what it means for us to truly belong to and with each other.
For one thing, it means we must be fiercely courageous in seeing what we see and calling it what it is. The Community is connected by truth-seeking and to accomplish its highest good must be vigilant in maintaining its own integrity through a constant process of self-inquiry and practical action.
Threads of nonviolent direct action are apparent in Royce’s theology, one which ran quite counter to the harsh cultural segregation of his times. He was existentially drawn to “lost causes”—he believed their pursuit was capable of manifesting the best of our loyalty. Integration and equality were such “lost causes”; whether they were ever fully realized, Royce would have agreed with King that they were worth pursuing as fundamental elements of Truth and what he had begun to call the Beloved Community.
Respectability Politics in Action
The social rules we follow as members of a particular society are essentially the politics of that society. Understanding the essential anti-Blackness of American culture is critical to being able to interpret the political maneuvering that so heavily weighs down our efforts to build Beloved Community. There is a cultural binary that exists based on Whiteness and Blackness to distinguish what is culturally and socially acceptable and what is not. The modes of dress, verbal and non-verbal expression, of behaviors, of belief systems, are then all subject to criminality: only what has been approved by Whiteness is socio-culturally, and therefore politically, acceptable.
In his lifetime, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not acceptable. Only after he was no longer considered a threat was he stripped of his radicalism and allowed a seat at the table of mainstream respect. This respect hinges on him being presented as a passive activist, which he was not. He was proactive and strategic.
When Black Lives Matter activists began holding Black Brunch demonstrations (11), many self-identified liberal and progressive activists criticized it as being “disruptive” and “too aggressive”. The activists were often told they should behave more like Dr. King, the irony of course being that the sit-ins were the literal strategic ancestor to Black Brunch, and King himself was on an FBI watchlist for disrupting the diners of his day. The BLM protestors were using the same strategies adapted to their circumstances.
The attempt to control and define activism through the enforcement of protest and direct action norms that center White cultural values is often at the expense of making critical impacts and building solidarity within the Beloved Community. These “respectability politics”—the policing of the behavior of oppressed people’s responses to their oppression—is just a spoke in the wheel of systemic injustice.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” It is this notion of demanding freedom and justice that has faded into the recesses of our collective memory and become eclipsed by a revisionist and dangerously misguided story of a passive King that is damagingly (re)shaping how we, as a fractured country, view, understand, and respond to injustice.
As we continue to unpack King’s legacy and work toward manifesting social change, justice, and equity, what direct actions can each of us make in our daily lives to co-create a Beloved Community that we can all thrive in?