I woke up at 3 a.m. one recent morning. It was as though there was something I needed to understand that was just off the corner of my conscious, and I didn’t know how to pull it into full view.
We are at the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and my own commitment to this struggle. While we have identified what we don’t want, we still have not clarified what we are working for. Our vision for the future should be our final legacy to the past.
I went to sleep wrestling with the dilemma of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beloved Community, and I woke up frustrated that I was no closer. I understand the concept and the reason King wanted to build this unique, racially diverse community, as opposed to the racially segregated communities that existed all over America in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But like most dreamers, he died before he could make that dream something real, and it remains a beautiful vision on a distant hill that we cannot feel or touch.
As a co-founder of the Martin Luther King County Institute (combination think tank and direct-service organization), it was clear to me that our organization had to find a way to solve this riddle. Slowly but surely, the answers will eventually become obvious. If we cannot do this in Martin Luther King Jr. County, where else do we expect it to happen?
Taking the next step
Can you impose this theory on an existing community, or does it need to germinate from a few neighbors declaring their block a Beloved Community and work out from that core?
Can you develop an isolated community without the city’s economic, political and social system being involved? Does the city need to declare itself a Beloved Community-in-the-making to give the communities the umbrella they need to develop the infrastructure? What role does the county and state need to have to reinforce the city’s intent?
Within the community itself, the residents must make some tough decisions about its moral and social structure: What is acceptable and unacceptable community behavior, and how do you enforce it if it is deemed unacceptable? How do you reward the neighbors who work for the community and encourage or eventually punish those who will not, and do you have the right to assume that role?
Is this new community structure economically beneficial to the community and the city by reducing the cost of policing? Does it create an environment that enhances the community’s quality of life? If so, what is it?
Can this be created by ministers who agree to preach the virtues of the concept from the pulpit where a black church, a white church, an Asian church and a Latino church in the same geographic area declare a joint mission to develop the community? Or is this something that a business community must take on and do a full-scale community campaign about the virtues of the idea? Or is it a combination of all of the above?
The City of Seattle, the largest city in Martin Luther King Jr. County, has made a key step by becoming a Compassionate City, and it should make that next step, on this 50th anniversary, by dedicating itself to be the city of the Beloved Community. It starts with the intent to create something, and from that intent comes the methodology to make it happen.
If we are truly a progressive city, it’s time to determine what that is. Or is this just empty talk, and we are building a city as racially dysfunctional as the rest of America? Is Martin Luther King Jr. County just a pretty bandage on an open racial sore?
Be a change agent
My opponents believe that my optimism about the future for African Americans in America is my Achilles heel, but I believe it’s my strength. When you stop believing change is possible, you stop being a change agent and begin to adjust to the world, rather than influence it.
I am a sharecropper’s son, and I am in Martin Luther King Jr. County for a reason. Sooner or later, you will come to the same conclusion that I have, and we will meet in a Beloved Community, sprouting somewhere near both of us.
In the meantime, talk to the people next door and see if you can start your own two-family Beloved Community. You might start something that will spread all over the nation.
CHARLIE JAMES is co-founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Institute. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.