Honoring Dr. King: Love, Power, Justice, and the “Beloved Community”
Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message of reconciliation and nonviolence. I read a lot about Dr. King when researching my book, and found myself deeply resonating with what he had to say.
One of his quotes really struck me and has so much relevance for today:
“One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic… power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As I read that quote over and over again to let it sink in, I substituted the word “empathy” for “love”. I couldn’t help but think that my work was in a small way channeling Dr. King, and leaned deeper into his demands for restorative justice, peace, and reconciliation that is reverberating across this country this week.
Finding a Gem
Recently I came across an old button at my grandmother’s house and of course I Googled it…and it appears that the button (see picture) is also found at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
It got me interested in learning more about how MLK Day became a national holiday, and the truth is even more interesting than I thought. It involves a 20-year struggle by Dr. King’s wife — Coretta Scott King — and many members of Congress to pass legislation to make this happen. And Stevie Wonder is part of the story too!
Here’s how we got to celebrate and honor his legacy as a federal holiday, as stated in much of an article in USA Today.
The Holiday’s Origins
Every year on the third Monday of January we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s the only federal holiday that honors a Black civil rights hero and someone other than a former US President. Dr. King was thought of as a controversial figure before and after his death, and the FBI followed him for 12 years trying to tie him to the Communist party and other behavior. They never found any evidence of the fact, and is another example of how dominant culture has been trying to quiet the voices of those who have less power.
But little did they understand that Dr. King had so much power in his message. “Instead, they discovered a man devoted to serving others, unafraid of self-examination and unconcerned with fame or notoriety,” said David Garrow, a historian and author. But still, “many in Congress did not want to recognize an African American that was thought of as a troublemaker by some in his day,” says Michael Honey, an American historian and professor of humanities at University of Washington, Tacoma.
On April 8, 1968 Representative John Conyers, a democrat from Michigan, introduced legislation to make MLK Day a holiday. That following year, on January 15, 1969, annual ceremonies commemorating King’s birthday were launched by the King Center in Atlanta and throughout the nation.
Dr. King’s widow, Corretta Scott King, continued to fight for the national holiday and testified in Congress multiple times for it. Here’s an interesting fact: Stevie Wonder’s incredibly upbeat song “Happy Birthday” was released in support of enacting a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the early 1980s. Wonder worked with Coretta Scott King to gain support for the national holiday, according to the King Center.
It took nearly 20 years from the time it was introduced to Congress to make this a national holiday, and still faced challenges from many states recognizing it as a holiday. On November 3, 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill marking the third Monday of January as MLK Day. In January 1986 the first national MLK holiday was observed. King’s birthday is on the 15th, but is celebrated on the third Monday due to later legislation that required national holidays fall on a Monday.
The Beloved Community
One of the most enduring legacies that Dr. King left was his idea of the “Beloved Community.” He described the “Beloved Community” as a society where “caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence. At its core, the “Beloved Community” is an engine of reconciliation.” Each year on MLK Day, the King Center in Atlanta and communities across the country honor Dr. King’s message of nonviolence and understanding.
I’m really grateful I found that button at my grandmother’s house. I like to think that she believed in creating a Beloved Community around her and the indelible imprint that Dr. King left on so many. As an added gift for today, and in honor of Dr. King’s legacy, I’m posting a story from my book about a modern day organization out of Atlanta that is helping to keep the “Beloved Community” alive and well. I hope you enjoy!
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Note: the following excerpt is from Empathy for Change: How to Create a More Understanding World. It is found in Chapter 5: Empathizing with Others: Understand First Before Being Understood
Civic Dinners: A Modern Way to Engage
Back in the day, disputes were handled in the town commons where everyone would come together to decide on the important information of the day. Jenn Graham, a millennial, noticed people her age craved human connection and want their ideas heard. They didn’t want to go to town halls anymore or take surveys for their local government. She knew this required a new way to think of civic engagement and action.
Graham thought, “What if we could get people to have brilliant conversations designed around important topics that matter to them? What if we invited people to dinner to get to meet with other residents, lawmakers, public servants, and even mayors? What does action look like on the ideas that came up in dinner?”
“What Do You Love About Atlanta?”
Graham tested her questions out in her local city of Atlanta in 2013 when the city was in the national news with some bad stories. She partnered with the Atlanta Regional Commission to launch New Voices: A Millennial Advisory Panel, which was a series of conversations that asked the question, “What do you love about Atlanta?” More than 135 adults attended the thirty-five dinners she held over three weeks, which were meant to get the millennial perspective on topics like transportation, mobility, healthy and livable communities, innovation, and workforce development.118
Following the dinners, Action Teams were formed to put the ideas to action over a two-month timeframe. Their goal was to talk to at least ten people who were impacted by this issue and to understand the root cause. In the end, teams made a five-minute pitch to leaders, which gives them a platform to express themselves.
She and the team were so blown away by the results. “We had no idea that we sparked a whole new generation of civic leaders by giving them the permission to lead. We were reminding them of their power and of the fact that they are the future leaders of the region.”
As a result of these conversations and action teams, various nonprofit organizations have emerged. One such group is Advanced Atlanta, a grassroots transit advocacy coalition that received funding and advocated for 2.8 billion in referendums and a transit package passed on the ballot. Five out of the attendees ran for office, including Bee Nguyen, who became the first Vietnamese Georgia State Representative. The results were staggering — she felt like she was onto something big.
As the 2016 election came and went, Jenn wanted to expand this idea wider, and that’s when she founded Civic Dinners. This was where she could marry her love for storytelling (she helped teach it for TEDxAtlanta for years) and civic engagement toward inclusive action.
The Start of Civic Dinners
Civic Dinners is about coming together to share stories, resources, and hope that inspire community action. Civic Dinners works closely with nonprofits, cities, and regions to design and manage community conversations, making civic engagement fun, social, and meaningful. The purpose of Civic Dinners is “to help create a more inclusive world where everyone feels invited and engaged in co-creating a better future.”119 The dinners are hosted with four to eight diverse guests where there are three big questions asked. Everyone has equal time to share with one voice at a time. After the dinner, the work continues to change habits and affect the circle of influence for larger social change. A circle of influence are people whom you personally know that you can inspire or “influence” toward an action, usually with a public benefit.
The concept is simple: bring people together to have conversations about things that matter in the world and lead them toward action. For example, they’ll be partnering with The Aspen Institute on an initiative called “Better Arguments,” which is about how we can encourage more Americans to lean into tough conversations and respect each other in the process, which is critical in democracy.
During each dinner attendees answer three big questions:
- How are we all connected to the topic of the evening, and what do you know about it?
- What is the story of us? What are the barriers and constraints toward achieving our goals? What biases do we have toward this issue? (It’s here where they explore the parameters of the problem space on the surface level but also deeper on the systemic level.)
- Why are we doing this and how will we act? (This gets to why the change is necessary, what’s at stake if we don’t change, the sense of urgency, and what we need to do to get there.)
These dinners are meant to lead people to an emotional awakening and reimagine our experience of democracy “to get more people engaged, more connected, and more committed to their community.” Secondly, they hope that by bringing people together they can shed “greater awareness and understanding to issues that matter, such as race, economic inclusion, gentrification, immigration and infrastructure.”
Graham hopes “to uncover a city’s collective soul, its vision, our shared truths, and our common values. I believe we have way more in common with each other than we realize, and I hope that our platform allows for more genuine understanding of one another.” Attending a Civic Dinner changes people — it turns them into people who are more motivated to make change within their local communities.
Types of Discussions in Civic Dinners
Civic Dinners focus on various challenges — from the hyper-local level to national and even global challenges. One topic was “Racial Equity in Oakland” — which I attended — where we collectively discussed grassroots initiatives to increase equity.
One big collaboration with the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Community focuses on having “a conversation exploring the barriers to voter participation in the United States and what we can do together to shift the needle and help to ensure a vibrant and truly representative democracy for 2020 and beyond.” This Community is a network of young people under the age of thirty working around the world to address challenges “by driving dialogue, action, and change.” There are more than 400 self-organized hubs in more than 150 countries of young people “taking an active role in shaping the future.” They’re looking to encourage and facilitate civic engagement and increase voter education, registration, and mobilization for younger generations.
Because of COVID-19, the Civic Dinners community shifted to be completely virtual, which is a new challenge for them because they now “can bring both rural and urban communities together to have conversations around how we should live and operate in society.” They’ve also created a series of virtual discussions about grief and gratitude, and virtual happy hours to keep connection happening between communities.
Civic Dinners started to shift from focusing on social issues to nonprofit organizations or companies because they found they were dealing with the same turmoil internally with employees, such as not knowing how to talk to each other about race and women leadership. For this important work, Graham created an “Inclusive” series: “A series of conversations on key topics that can help organizations build a more inclusive culture with employees, stakeholders, customers, and the greater community.” It’s here where she and her team tackle topics like unconscious bias, understanding race, the voice of women, nurturing workplaces, mental health, gender identity, aging, disability, heritage, and belonging, to name a few.
Building a Beloved Community
To Jenn, the Civic Dinner is not just a one-time occurrence: it’s a way to build what she calls “beloved community.” This concept was popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He envisioned the beloved community as a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings. Civic Dinners creates the conditions to bring people together to create more opportunities for different people from various backgrounds and roles to play to break down these preconceived beliefs about others.
Civic Dinners is also unintentionally taking on the loneliness epidemic sweeping our country. The simple act of attending a dinner gives people a chance to find other people out there who care about the same issues and also act locally, creating a ripple effect. Jenn says, “Once you realize that you’re not alone, that you aren’t the only one feeling this way, then you start thinking, ‘Well, they care about it and maybe we can do something, we can actually make an impact.’ And maybe there are other people who really care about this.”
Empathy for Change is slated for release on January 25, 2021 wherever books are sold. Learn more about this chapter and Civic Dinners at www.EmpathyforChange.com.