Too many do not realize how truly loving, and therefore radical, is the vision and hope of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, King dissected the ills of society and challenged us to create the Beloved community.
In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, he stated the goal of the efforts to extend to African Americans in the United States what all in the Republic should enjoy: Life Liberty and the ability to pursue happiness. In 1962, King called for the integration of all Americans.
“Desegregation is not enough. … We must always be aware of the fact that our ultimate goal is integration, and that desegregation is only a first step on the road to the good society. … Integration is genuine intergroup, interpersonal doing. We do not have to look very far to see the pernicious effects of a desegregated society that is not integrated. It leads to “physical proximity without spiritual affinity.” It gives us a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts are apart. It gives us special togetherness and spiritual apartness. It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness” (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, “The Ethical Demands of Integration,” Nashville TN Dec 27, 1962).
By 1968, King was fighting not only racism, but also the evils of economic exploitation and malevolent militarism. His opposition to the Vietnam war had cost him support across many sectors of U.S. society. A week before he was assassinated at the young age of 39, his friend Harry Belafonte, noted how agitated and preoccupied King appeared. Belafonte asked him what the problem was. King responded:
“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know we will win, but I have come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house. I’m afraid that America has lost the moral vision she may have had, and I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears the soul of this nation. I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.”
Belafonte added, “That statement took me aback. It was the last thing I would have expected to hear, considering the nature of our struggle.”
Belafonte said he asked King, “What should we do?” and King replied that we should, “become the firemen… Let us not stand by and let the house burn.”
One way to put out the fire is to continue to work for true integration. Years ago, the image of America as melting pot envisioned all peoples becoming one by dissolving into sameness. When I was studying cultural anthropology in the 1990s, a better image emerged. America as a salad. In a salad, the tomato remains a tomato and the cucumber a cucumber and the onion the onion, but all together they are delicious, without losing their particulate flavor or identity.
Let’s put out the fires of racism, economic injustice, and violence of all kinds. This MLK day, let’s again strive for real integration, where we are truly together, elbow to elbow and heart to heart. Let us strive, not for a bland sameness, but the “constructive equality of oneness.”