As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, it is important to reflect on King’s concept of the Beloved Community. In summarizing the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, King stated, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
King envisioned a Beloved Community that was non-discriminatory, equitable, sensitive, and compassionate.
If King could observe America today, he would be disappointed with the state of this nation. At the heart of the Occupy Wall Street protests are the staggering disparities between the rich and the poor in this country. The top one percent of Americans own approximately 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.
King would adamantly agree that the top one percent should not live at the expense of the 99 percent. King would be disappointed that we have lost thousands of lives and spent over a trillion dollars in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would not buy the argument that either war was necessary.
He would be disappointed in our failure to provide quality education in our urban schools. He would also be disappointed in our biased and hyper-punitive criminal justice system.
King would surely be perplexed by the state of our presidential politics. He would see the similarities in the folks that denounced him in Birmingham, Memphis, and Washington, D.C., and those who denounce our current president. Observing the same hate, vitriol, and disrespect would surely disappoint him.
In many ways, President Obama has reflected the spirit of King. He has passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Child Insurance Act, Federal Hate Crimes Bill, Consumer Protection Act, Land Conservation Act, Health Care Reform, and repealed “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”
He has endorsed the Dream Act, which secures higher education opportunities for illegal immigrants of good moral character. He has fought to extend unemployment benefits to those who have lost their jobs. In his own way, Obama has sought to embrace King’s concept of the Beloved Community.
Despite all of these humanistic achievements, there are those who still hate Obama and call him a "do-nothing" president. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, King was hated by many in this country. They thought he was a rabble-rousing socialist, who was cancerous to America.
People hated King for trying to do the right thing — for trying to hold this nation accountable for living up to the egalitarian spirit of the Constitution. People hated King and could not explain why. He only became an icon of peace and racial reconciliation over a decade after his assassination.
In the same spirit, some people hate our president and cannot quite put their finger on why. King would be receptive to robust debate and opposition toward the president based on substantive policy issues; this is a reflection of our dynamic democracy.
However, King would be ashamed of the hate-infused politics of dysfunction that have recently paralyzed our nation. For many of us, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was simply a day off of work, or a day off from school.
From Congress, to our communities, we should use King’s holiday to deeply reflect on our role in embracing a non-discriminatory, equitable, sensitive, and more compassionate society. In legislative assemblies, schools, and in the workplace, we should embrace behavior that would make King proud, not disappointed.
In our private and public lives, we should strive to embrace his Beloved Community.
Renford Reese, Ph.D., a Henry County native, is a political science professor and founder of the Prison Education Project at Cal Poly Pomona: http://www.PrisonEducationProject.org. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Hong Kong, and is the author of five books.