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The beloved community of Martin Luther King

On the 75th anniversary of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, an elder stateswoman of the Black Power movement reflects on what might have been different if we'd taken King's most radical teachings to heart-and what might still be possible
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Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs

In the 1960s I didn't pay much attention to Martin Luther King, Jr. My own social change activities unfolded in the inner city of Detroit. So I identified more with Malcolm X than with Martin. Like most Black Power activists, I viewed King's notions of nonviolence and beloved community as somewhat naïve and sentimental.

Neither was I involved in the 15-year campaign launched in 1968 by Detroit's Congressman John Conyers to declare King's birthday a national holiday. I held back, concerned that it would turn King into an icon, obscure the role of grassroots activists, and reinforce the tendency to rely on charismatic leaders.

Thirty-five years have now passed since King was killed, decades during which I have been continuously involved in the struggle to free our communities of the crime and violence that escalated in the wake of the urban rebellions of the late 1960s and the de-industrialization of Detroit. In the 20 years since President Reagan signed into law the King holiday, we seem to have drifted further from anything like a beloved community in this nation.

Thinking back over these years, I can't help wondering: Might events have taken a different path if we had found a way to infuse our struggle for Black Power with King's philosophy of nonviolence? Is it possible that our relationships with one another today, not only inter- but intra-racially, would be more harmonious if we had discovered how to blend Malcolm's militancy with King's vision of the beloved community? Could such a synthesis have a revolutionary power beyond our wildest dreams? Is such a revolutionary power available to us today?

These are the times that try our souls. I cannot recall any previous period when the challenges have been so basic, so interconnected, and so demanding, not just to specific groups but to everyone living in this country, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, or national origin.

As I have read and re-read King's speeches and writings from the last two years of his life, it has become increasingly clear to me that King's prophetic vision is now the indispensable starting point for 21st-century revolutionaries.

King's new kind of revolution
Viewing Martin Luther King, Jr., as a revolutionary is in sharp contrast to the official view of him as simply an advocate for the rights of African Americans within the current system. In the last two years of his life, confronted with problems that required more complex solutions than visions of Black and White children marching hand in hand, King began to explore a new kind of revolution, one that would challenge all the values and institutions of our society and combine the struggle against racism with a struggle against poverty, militarism, and materialism.

“The black revolution,” he insisted, “is much more than a struggle for rights for Negroes. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society.”

“The war in Vietnam,” he said, “is a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. Material growth has been made an end itself. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power.”

This is what we should be talking about as we celebrate King's 75th birthday this year.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56, which provided King with his first experience in movement leadership, was a watershed because it created a theory and practice of revolutionary struggle very different from that which prevailed in the first half of the 20th century under the influence of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In those days most radicals, including myself, conceived of revolutionary struggle as an insurrection, a seizure of power by the oppressed from their oppressors, by the victims from the villains.

By contrast, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a year-long, nonviolent, disciplined, and ultimately successful boycott by an African-American community, struggling against their dehumanization, not as angry victims or rebels, but as new men and women, representative of a new more human society. Using methods that transformed them, they triggered the human identity and ecology movements that over the last 40 years have been creating a new civil society in the United States.

As a Baptist preacher and philosopher, King played a pivotal role in helping the bus boycotters in Montgomery, Alabama, create the new paradigm of nonviolent transformative struggles, which over the next nine years forced Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Self-transforming, structure-transforming
King was a movement activist for only 13 years, from his participation in the Montgomery Bus Boycott to his assassination in April 1968. But the dialectical development of his thinking during those turbulent years is unmistakable.

In June 1965, the rebellion in Watts, California, confronted King with the reality that civil and voting rights legislation had little to offer black youth living desperate lives in northern ghettoes. So in 1966 he went to Chicago to meet with these young people.

Reflecting on these meetings and on the mounting resistance to the Vietnam War, King concluded that the crisis of black youth was rooted in structural questions that required going beyond both civil rights and Black Power. “One unfortunate thing about Black Power,” he said, “is that it gives race a priority precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike.”

As a result, in his major writings and speeches in the last two years of his life (Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos? and Time to Break Silence), King began to project a new kind of radical revolution that would begin the shift from a “thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”

He rejected the dictatorship of technology, which, he said, diminishes people because it eliminates their sense of participation. “Enlarged material powers,” he warned repeatedly, “spell enlarged peril if there is no proportionate growth of the soul.” “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” he said, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Instead, King had a vision of people at the grassroots and community level participating in creating new values, truths, relationships, and infrastructures as the foundation for a new society. He called for programs that would involve young people in “self-transforming and structure-transforming” direct actions “in our dying cities.” He called for a radical revolution in values and a new social system that goes beyond both capitalism, which he said is “too I-centered, too individualistic,” and communism, which is “too collective, too statist.”

The catastrophe of the Vietnam War also inspired him to project a new concept of global citizenship that we now urgently need to practice as we grapple with the catastrophe of our current occupation of Iraq. “Every nation,” he said, “must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

“Disinherited people all over the world,” he said, “are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds.” In order for the United States to get on the right side of this world revolution, we must “undergo a radical revolution in values.”

King's reasons for opposing a war against communism could be applied almost verbatim to the current war against terrorism. “Poverty, insecurity and injustice,” he explained, “are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows. A positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism.”

Giving birth to a new society
It is difficult to imagine a set of projections that go more to the roots of our current crisis. In fact, I venture to say that if, over the nearly 40 years since MLK's assassination, we had been building a movement to make the revolution that he projected, September 11th might have been avoided.

As the Bush administration continues to exploit popular fears to carry out its agenda of military buildup, cutbacks in social programs, and suppression of dissent, we need to tap into King's revolutionary spirit. By internalizing and sharing his concept of love as the readiness to go to any length to restore community, we can help more Americans recognize that the best way to insure our peace and security is not by warring against the “axis of evil” but through a revolution in our own values and practice. That revolution must include a concept of global citizenship in which the life of an Afghan, Iraqi, North Korean, or Palestinian is as precious as an American's.

Hopeful signs are popping up in cities and communities throughout the country. More than 100 U.S. cities and 400 more around the world have defied the Bush administration' s abandonment of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming by devising local initiatives to meet the treaty's goals. Local groups are organizing programs to reduce our dependence on global capitalism by creating more self-reliant economies, including local currencies like the Ithaca dollar and urban agriculture programs. Experiments in education for our young people, such as Detroit Summer and KIDS (Kids Involved in Direct Service), are pioneering self-transforming and structure-transforming community-building programs in our schools from kindergarten through high school.

King constantly pointed out to those in the freedom movement that their refusal to respond in kind to the violence and terrorism of their opponents was increasing their own strength and unity. He reminded them and the world that their goal was not only the right to sit at the front of the bus or to vote, but to give birth to a new society based on more human values. In so doing, he not only empowered those on the front lines, but in the process developed a strategy for transforming a struggle for rights into a struggle that advances the humanity of everyone in the society and thereby brings the beloved community closer to realization. This is what true revolutions are about. They are about redefining our relationships with one another, to the Earth and to the world; about creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old; about hope, not despair; about saying yes to life and no to war; about finding the courage to love and care for the peoples of the world as we love and care for our own families. King's revolutionary vision is about each of us becoming the change we want to see in the world.


Grace Lee Boggs was born to Chinese immigrant parents in 1915. After receiving her Ph.D. in philosophy, in 1953 she came to Detroit, where she married Jimmy Boggs, an African-American labor activist. The two became deeply involved in Black Power organizing and left-wing politics. With race- and gender-based discrimination precluding an academic career, she dedicated herself to a lifetime of activism.

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