(Dr. King and Coretta Scott King. Wikimedia Commons)
2017 was a year of increased conflict in the United States. Many diverse communities were forced to confront a range of challenges related to anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and anti-immigrant feelings. These challenges strike at the heart of what it means to live in a multicultural, democratic society.
Yet, it is not the first time America has faced such a crisis – this divisiveness has a much longer history. I study the civil rights movement and the field of peace geographies. We faced similar crises related to the broader civil rights struggles in the 1960s.
So, what can we draw from the past that is relevant to the present? Specifically, how can we heal a nation that is divided along race, class and political lines?
As outlined by Martin Luther King Jr., the role of love, in engaging individuals and communities in conflict, is crucial today. For King, love was not sentimental. It demanded that individuals tell their oppressors what they were doing was wrong.
King spent his public career working toward ending segregation and fighting racial discrimination. For many people the pinnacle of this work occurred in Washington, D.C., when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Less well-known and often ignored is his later work on ending poverty and his fight on behalf of poor people. In fact, when King was assassinated in Memphis he was in the midst of building toward a national march on Washington, D.C., that would have brought together tens of thousands of economically disenfranchised people to advocate for policies that would reduce poverty. This effort – known as the “Poor People’s Campaign” – aimed to dramatically shift national priorities to the health and welfare of working peoples.
Scholars such as Derek Alderman, Paul Kingsbury and Owen Dwyer have emphasized how King’s work can be applied in today’s context. They argue that calling attention to the civil rights movement, can “change the way students understand themselves in relation to the larger project of civil rights.” And in understanding the civil rights movement, students and the broader public can see its contemporary significance.
Idea of love
King focused on the role of love as key to building healthy communities and the ways in which love can and should be at the center of our social interactions.
King’s final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” published in the year before his assassination, provides us with his most expansive vision of an inclusive, diverse and economically equitable U.S. nation. For King, love is a key part of creating communities that work for everyone and not just the few at the expense of the many.
Love was not a mushy or easily dismissed emotion, but was central to the kind of community he envisioned. King made distinctions between three forms of love which are key to the human experience: “eros,” “philia” and most importantly “agape.”
For King, eros is a form of love that is most closely associated with desire, while philia is often the love that is experienced between very good friends or family. These visions are different from agape.
Agape, which was at the center of the movement he was building, was the moral imperative to engage with one’s oppressor in a way that showed the oppressor the ways their actions dehumanize and detract from society. He said,
“In speaking of love we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense[…] When we speak of loving those who oppose us […] we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word Agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all [sic] men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”
King further defined agape when he argued at the University of California at Berkeley that the concept of agape “stands at the center of the movement we are to carry on in the Southland.” It was a love that demanded that one stand up for oneself and tells those who oppress that what they were doing was wrong.
Why this matters now
In the face of violence directed at minority communities and in a deepening political divisions in the country, King’s words and philosophy are perhaps more critical for us today than at any point in the recent past.
As King noted, all persons exist in an interrelated community and all are dependent on each other. By connecting love to community, King argued there were opportunities to build a more just and economically sustainable society which respected difference. As he said,
“Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… Therefore if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavages of a broken community.”
King outlined a vision in which we are compelled to work toward making our communities inclusive. They reflect the broad values of equality and democracy. Through an engagement with one another as its foundation, agape provides opportunities to work toward common goals.
Building a community today
At a time when the nation feels so divided, there is a need to bring back King’s vision of agape-fueled community building and begin a difficult conversation about where we are as a nation and where we want to go. It would move us past simply seeing the other side as being wholly motivated by hate.
Engaging in a conversation through agape signals a willingness to restore broken communities and to approach difference with an open mind.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Nov. 16, 2016.
(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , chats with African-Americans during a door-to-door campaign in 1964.
After this last tumultuous year of political rancor and racial animus, many people could well be asking what can sustain them over the next coming days: How do they make the space for self-care alongside a constant call to activism? Or, how do they turn off their phones, when there are more calls to be made and focus instead on inward cultivation?
As a historian of American race and religion, I have studied how figures in American history have struggled with similar questions. For some, such as the philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, the answer was to retreat to Walden Pond. But for the African-Americans who grew up with the legacy of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, and violence, such a retreat was unthinkable. Among them was Martin Luther King Jr.
On this anniversary of King’s birthday, it’s worth looking at how King learned to integrate spiritual growth and social transformation. One major influence on King’s thought was the African-American minister, theologian, and mystic Howard Thurman.
The influence of Howard Thurman
Born in 1899, Thurman was 30 years older than King, the same age, in fact, as King’s father. Through his sermons and teaching at Howard University and Boston University, he influenced intellectually and spiritually an entire generation that became the leadership of the civil rights movement.
Among his most significant contributions was bringing the ideas of nonviolence to the movement. It was Thurman’s trip to India in 1935, where he met Mahatma Gandhi, that was greatly influential in incorporating the principles of nonviolence in the African-American freedom struggle.
At the close of the meeting, which was long highlighted by Thurman as a central event of his life, Gandhi reportedly told Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” King and others remembered and repeated that phrase during the early years of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
Thurman and King were both steeped in the black Baptist tradition. Both thought long about how to apply their church experiences and theological training into challenging the white supremacist ideology of segregation. However, initially their encounters were brief.
Thurman had served as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965. King was a student there when Thurman first assumed his position in Boston and heard the renowned minister deliver some addresses. A few years later, King invited Thurman to speak at his first pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.
Ironically, their most serious personal encounter, that gave Thurman his opportunity to influence King personally, and help prepare him for struggles to come, came as a result of a tragedy.
A crucial meeting in hospital
On Sept. 20, 1958, a mentally disturbed African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry came to a book signing in upper Manhattan. There, King was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” Curry moved to the front of the signing line, took out a sharp-edged letter opener and stabbed the 29-year-old minister, who had just vaulted to national prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.
King barely survived. Doctors later told King that, if he had sneezed, he easily could have died. Of course, King later received a fatal gunshot wound in April 1968. Curry lived her days in a mental institution, to the age of 97.
It was while recuperating in the hospital afterward, that King received a visit from Thurman. While there, Thurman gave the same advice he gave to countless others over decades: that King should take the unexpected, if tragic, opportunity, to step out of life briefly, meditate on his life and its purposes, and only then move forward.
Thurman urged King to extend his rest period by two weeks. It would, as he said, give King “time away from the immediate pressure of the movement” and to “rest his body and mind with healing detachment.” Thurman worried that “the movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own,” which potentially could swallow up King.
King wrote to Thurman to say, “I am following your advice on the question.”
King’s spiritual connection with Thurman
King and Thurman were never personally close. But Thurman left a profound intellectual and spiritual influence on King. King, for example, reportedly carried his own well-thumbed copy of Thurman’s best-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,”in his pocket during the long and epic struggle of the Montgomery bus boycott.
In his sermons during the 1950s and 1960s, King quoted and paraphrased Thurman extensively. Drawing from Thurman’s views, King understood Jesus as friend and ally of the dispossessed – to a group of Jewish followers in ancient Palestine, and to African-Americans under slavery and segregation. That was precisely why Jesus was so central to African-American religious history.
Thurman was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism.
As Walter Fluker, editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, has explained, the private mystic and the public activist found common ground in understanding that spirituality is necessarily linked to social transformation. Private spiritual cultivation could prepare the way for deeper public commitments for social change. King himself, according to one biographer, came to feel that the stabbing and enforced convalescence was “part of God’s plan to prepare him for some larger work” in the struggle against southern segregation and American white supremacy.
In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation and prayer. This was the message Thurman transmitted to the larger civil rights movement. Thurman combined, in the words of historian Martin Marty, the “inner life, the life of passion, the life of fire, with the external life, the life of politics.”
Spiritual retreat and activism
King’s stabbing was a bizarre and tragic event, but in some sense it gave him the period of reflection and inner cultivation needed for the chaotic coming days of the civil rights struggle. The prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where in mid-1963 King penned his classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” also accidentally but critically provided much the same spiritual retreat for reflections that helped transform America.
The relationship of Thurman’s mysticism and King’s activism provides a fascinating model for how spiritual and social transformation can work together in a person’s life. And in society more generally.
(The cast of “Big Little Lies” accepting their Golden Globe. Photo credit: Hollywood Foreign Press/NBC)
The Golden Globes took me on a journey this year. To be honest, I wish I wasn’t on a good 50 percent of that journey. But the parts that I stuck around for were worth it.
For instance, let’s take the theme of the night—TIME’S UP. With the Golden Globes red carpet and subsequent awards show, the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment against women in the workforce has been put in the spotlight at such a large scale that it seems virtually impossible for the industry to walk back on it or turn its face away from it. The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, spearheaded by over 300 women in entertainment, is now part of the fabric of Hollywood and will only get stronger year by year.
It goes without saying that the initiative’s birth comes from the sheer amount of women in Hollywood who shared their heartbreaking stories of harassment and abuse at the hands of producers, directors, and other Hollywood male elite. But, what also helped the initiative take shape was a message of solidarity from the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance), an organization that combats the harassment female farmworkers face. As TIME’S UP’s website states, the fund partners “with leading advocates for equality and safety to improve laws, employment agreements, and corporate policies; help change the face of corporate boardrooms and the C-suite; and enable more women and men to access our legal system to hold wrongdoers accountable.” In short, the initiative hopes to help all women be protected against abuse and inequitable power structures.
The solidarity between the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and TIME’S UP is why so many actresses brought WOC activists as their plus ones Sunday. The goal was to advocate for intersectional feminist politics and uplifting female voices and women-led organizations. The eight activists that joined Michelle Williams, Emma Watson, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Amy Poehler and Emma Stone were:
Billie Jean King, legendary tennis star and activist
Their joint statement sheds more light on why they chose the Golden Globes red carpet as the avenue to steer the conversation from one of outrage to one of action.
“As longtime organizers, activists and advocates for racial and gender justice, it gives us enormous pride to stand with the members of the TIMES UP campaign who have stood up and spoken out in this groundbreaking historical moment. We have each dedicated our lives to doing work that supports the least visible, most marginalized women in our diverse contexts. We do this work as participants in movements that seek to affirm the dignity and humanity of every person.
“Too much of the recent press attention has been focused on perpetrators and does not adequately address the systematic nature of violence including the importance of race, ethnicity and economic status in sexual violence and other forms of violence against women. Our goal in attending the Golden Globes is to shift the focus back to survivors and on systemic, lasting solutions. Each of us will be highlighting legislative, community-level and interpersonal solutions that contribute to ending violence against women in all our communities. It is our hope that in doing so, we will also help to broaden conversations about the connection to power, privilege and other systemic inequalities.”
After reading more about these women and how they utilized the red carpet as their battleground, I feel like a butt for initially thinking the act of actresses bringing these women was one of performative wokeness. Without any knowledge behind the women’s goal, it certainly has all of the appearances of a selfish act by Hollywood elite to gain brownie points and good press. Without knowing anything about the event, you could easily think the women were being tokenized. It’s easy to believe the worst of Hollywood, even at times like these.
But in this case, the opposite is true; the women involved, women who do such important work, weren’t being used, which was my fear (if you go on Twitter, you can read my misgivings and see-sawing from point to point). I was extremely protective of how these women were being perceived by Hollywood. I’m glad to feel like I was being protective for no reason. And whether or not you believe there’s still some tokenism or lack of agency happening, there is still the silver lining that the exposure opened us viewers up to just eight of the many women who do the hard work without much recognition. They do they work because it is their true calling. It’s only right that they become just popular and recognizable, if not more so, as the actresses who partnered with them.
Even when I muddled through my concerns while watching the red carpet, I was positively surprised and heartened to hear how many actresses were ready to talk about issues affecting all women, including taking E! to task—while being interviewed by E!—for their pay gap.
Where the night fell apart was how men were largely let off the hook about speaking up for women’s rights. All they really had to do was wear a “TIME’S UP” pin and a black tuxedo and smile. The actual awards show also didn’t help matters, between snubbing Dee Rees and Greta Gerwig in the Best Director category (as Natalie Portman so poignantly said, only men were nominated), snubbing Mudbound as a Best Picture contender, blocking Get Out from its expected win by putting it in the Comedy/Musical category, and awarding Kirk Douglas, James Franco, and Gary Oldman, all of whom have checkered pasts and allegations of abuse, harassment or sexual assault.
But I was brought back by Oprah Winfrey’s rousing speech. I’ll be honest and say that Oprah had fallen off my radar in the past few years; I still watched OWN from time to time, and I still loved my memories of watching The Oprah Winfrey Show. But as for Oprah herself—I thought she’d gone extremely Hollywood. I thought she’d forgotten who she was before she became the New Age guru she is now. Sometimes, the rich begin to forget the hardships of others, and I’d sadly lumped Oprah in with that group, since it’s a luxury to be able to ponder life’s issues inn a comfy chair in the woods.
But Oprah rightfully schooled me, and everyone else in the Golden Globes audience. She gave everyone an education on what they should prioritize in this fight for equality; it’s not about what we wear or don’t wear, and it’s not about how well we speak or how much money we have. What matters is if we use the platforms we have, big or small, to speak out against bigotry, xenophobia, sexism, harassment and abuse. We need to always lift up those like Recy Taylor who never got the justice they deserved. We need to learn and re-learn our American history, so we don’t go through life not giving women like Rosa Parks, an NAACP investigator (not just a tired seamstress, as we’ve always been taught) their full due.
On a personal level, Oprah also reminded me why I got into this representation game in the first place. Too often, many of us lose our way and forget why we were called to do the things we do in the first place. I started blogging about representation in the media years ago after I realized there was a lot more I could say about film and TV than just who is cast in the new thing. There was an entire market not being addressed, and I felt I had the background and talent to address that market with intelligence and humility. However, the world of social media can make you believe that developing a cult of personality is more important than writing a meaningful post. It can make you think your work doesn’t matter because you might not be as loud or as brash or as excitedly opinionated as others. What Oprah did was inspire me the way she did when I was a child. I remembered why I write about film and TV—it’s because my voice is needed. It’s because all of our voices are needed, not just my own. We all should be able to voice our truths about our lives and experiences and lift each other up, finding commonalities in our stories and areas where we can increase our learning. In a way, Oprah did what she’s always done, including when she holds her conversations in the woods—she’s asking us to showcase vulnerable and relatable humanity to each other.
With that said, it’s kinda ridiculous that reactions to her speech has now devolved into a shouting match on Twitter about whether or not she’s qualified to run for President. Sure, I’d like a politician to run for President, but it’s not as if Oprah’s another Trump—she’s highly intelligent, she’s a humanitarian, and she understands what’s at stake with American politics and society. If Trump’s qualified to run and win, anyone’s qualified to run now. And if that means Oprah’s got a chance, then so be it. I mean, if there’s no one else running against Trump, who else are we going to vote for? There are bigger and more meaningful hills to die on than if Oprah wins the Presidency. (By the way: I didn’t see this much outrage when Dwayne Johnson said he was mulling over a presidential candidacy.) The Twittersphere going H.A.M. over Oprah’s hypothetical candidacy has left a bad taste in my mouth for sure, and it’s definitely indicative of how Twitter as a whole can miss the point of a poignant moment.
I’ll end with this: The Golden Globes were the worst and best of times. Some things happened that were deeply questionable, and other things happened that seemed sketchy at first but turned out to be fantastic. In the end, Oprah cut through the muck and proved to be the guiding light of the evening, and looking with hindsight, none of us should have been surprised at that outcome.♦