Chaos or Community? The Choice is Ours
During the first few months of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took a break from his grueling schedule, rented a house in Jamaica, and wrote what would be his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?, Dr. King surveyed the changes that had occurred in the United States since the start of what historians now call the “classic civil rights movement”. He then laid out, with remarkable clarity, his vision for the future.
His fundamental argument was that man had, for the first time in human history, the ability to eliminate poverty, hunger, and homelessness thereby creating what he called the “beloved community”. He argued against what he characterized as the “triple evils”, capitalism, militarism, and racism. He carefully distinguished his views from the Marxists and delineated his objections to elements of the "Black power" philosophy. He expressed a hope that the changes he called for could be realized within the framework of the Constitution of the United States..
The ideas Dr. King fleshed out in this book inspired his mobilization of the “Poor Peoples Campaign”. He planned to lead a multiracial coalition to Washington D.C. during the summer of 1968 and was organizing it at the time he was assassinated on April 4th of that year. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act had been passed by the time he wrote what became his final testament.. Dr. King was pushing for passage of the" Fair Housing Act of 1968" which was signed into law one week after his death. The Watts rebellion had occurred in 1965 and the call for Black Power had been raised by SNCC during the “March Against Fear” in Mississippi the summer before. To say that those were "trying times" is an understatement. Today, we find ourselves in times that are at least as trying.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the only Black American citizen honored with a national holiday. Dr. King is also the only private citizen honored with a memorial on the National Mall. Why is Dr. King so honored? The answer lies in the most important question we must ask ourselves as citizens of this nation: what does it mean to be an American? Who is an American?
Are we “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”? Or, are we a collection of different races and ethnicities and nationalities dominated by people of European descent. Are we just groups of people who are excluded from social structures in which those of English ancestry are the dominant society and African Americans are classified as an "under-class"? Do we have equal protection under the law? Or, are we a nation with entire groups of people consigned to "under-class citizenship"?
Dr. King is honored today because he, and the movement he led, set this nation on a new path. Dr. King, and the movement he led, called on this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed; “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. To understand the significance of the Civil Rights movement, it is necessary to understand both the unique history and the unique significance of the United States of America. No other nation was founded on a creed of freedom, justice, and equality. No other nation was founded on an ideal as opposed to an ethnicity. The United States is the world’s first “constitutional democracy”. Yet, this nation has never lived up to its ideals.
The British colonies were established by expropriating the land of "Native Americans". Africans were traded as commodities- brought to these shores with what the Supreme Court declared to be “No rights a white man is bound to respect.” At the very heart of the founding of our Republic was the question of identity. Who qualifies to be an American? The United States Constitution embodied the contradictions between the ideals upon which the republic was founded, and the reality of an economy based on “plantation capitalism”. Justice Thurgood Marshall, speaking to the American Bar Association on the eve of the Bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention, had this to say about the document:
“…I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever “fixed” at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite “The Constitution,” they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago. For a sense of the evolving nature of the Constitution we need look no further than the first three words of the document’s preamble: ‘We the People.” When the Founding Fathers used this phrase in 1787, they did not have in mind the majority of America’s citizens. “We the People” included, in the words of the Framers, “the whole Number of free Persons.” United States Constitution, Art. 1, 52 (Sept. 17, 1787). On a matter so basic as the right to vote, for example, Negro slaves were excluded, although they were counted for representational purposes as three-fifths each. Women did not gain the right to vote for over a hundred and thirty years afterwards. (The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920). These omissions were intentional…”
Justice Marshall, in his previous role as Executive Director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued and won numerous civil rights cases before the United States Supreme Court. He, as well as anyone, understood what it took to make America “live up to the true meaning of its creed”.
The police murder of George Floyd has brought worldwide attention to the systemic racism that still animates the United States fifty-two years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, we entered a new, active period in the long struggle to make this a true democracy. The increasing effectiveness of the "Black Lives Matter" movement is becoming evermore apparent . The movement against police brutality and systemic racism has led to protests worldwide. The reaction from the President of the United States has been to double down with the repressive tactics last used by those who resisted the Civil Rights movement. Against this backdrop, we have lost several of our Civil Rights- era heroes in recent weeks. First, we lost Rev. Joseph Lowery. Then, in rapid succession, Ms. Constance Curry and Mrs. Emma Sanders. And finally, on the same day, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis. Each of these heroes contributed mightily to making this nation live up to its stated ideals. President Obama, delivering the eulogy for Rep. John Lewis, made it plain:
“Bull Connor may be gone. But, today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But, we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But, even as we sit here, there are those in power [who]are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting: by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students, with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision- even undermining the postal service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don't get sick.” Today we stand at an inflection point in our nation’s history. The current occupant of the White House is fully on board with the white nationalist movement. The howls of anger from the "right", after President Obama’s Eulogy, made it clear that the "rule of law" means nothing to those who seek to preserve white supremacy at all costs. This is an existential election.
Rep. Lewis flew to Washington to stand with Mayor Muriel Bowser at The "Black Lives Matter Plaza" mere days before his demise. He understood that he was leaving the struggle to those of us who remain. There are many views of what must be done to make the promise of democracy real for Black America. But, for the generation that led the civil rights movement there was no uncertainty. The leaders of the civil rights movement were influenced by Dr. Howard Thurman, who taught in his masterwork ,"Jesus and the Disinherited", that Jesus fought for the oppressed of his day. According to Thurman, Jesus' greatest teaching was “The Kingdom of Heaven is in us”.
The leaders of the Civil Rights movement possessed an unrelenting belief that the “beloved community” can be created by our actions. As our “greatest generation” passes into history and communes with the ancestors, we must continue the fight to build “the beloved community” that so many marched and bled and died to bring into existence. The baton is now passed to us.