King, #Charlottesville, and beloved community.
This essay was originally published on Medium for Martin Luther King Day in 2018 (Jan 15, 2018). I'm reposting it here both to capture the ideas alongside others on my website and because, as we approach the anniversary of that horrible day, I continue to be deeply moved and motivated by King's philosophy and his calls to action for white allies.
In May 2017, I wasn’t sure how I should or would respond to that summer’s planned white supremacist events in Charlottesville. Permits for a KKK event on July 8 and a much larger “Unite the Right” rally on August 12 had been requested and secured. Moderate voices called for disengagement, while others called folks into active resistance.
In my discernment, I turned to Martin Luther King, Jr.
In particular, I reread his book Why We Can’t Wait and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In the former, King framed the urgency of his own historic moment. In the latter, King was adamant and direct in his criticism of white moderates. He called them (us) into the Civil Rights Movement as vital allies.
Together, these ideas led me to a number of hard, but necessary conversations about race and to the hard, but necessary decision that I would join the Charlottesville resistance against white supremacy.
Throughout the summer, Charlottesville activists were trained by Rev. Osagyefu Sekou in King’s principles of nonviolent direct action. We practiced falling limp, locking arms, facing hostility, turning the other cheek. We learned to “hold the discipline” of nonviolence when experiencing emotional distress and to minimize the danger of police batons, tear gas, and firearms. We planned an infrastructure to support all of that.
Again and again, until the call and response were second nature, we chanted: What are we fighting? STRUCTURES OF EVIL (NOT PEOPLE). How do we do it? WITH DEEP ABIDING LOVE. What is our first priority? THE PRESERVATION OF LIFE.
Outside of the trainings, activists and organizing groups posted King’s principles of nonviolence on social media. They printed flyers to pass out in crowds. These served as regular and vital reminders ahead of and during the conflict — of the call to active nonviolent resistance, the philosophy that gives it life, the courage it requires, and the hope it contains.
By the weekend of August 12, King’s legacy was alive in Charlottesville. Our practical and spiritual preparation, rooted in King’s words and example, empowered us.
- It gave us precedent, role models, strategy, and limits.
- It emboldened brave souls to risk their lives on the front lines of resistance.
- It transformed a church in the middle of that hellscape into a transcendent space where caring reigned and sanctuary — physical, emotional, spiritual — was possible.
- It cemented our reason for being, in both the moment and our lives.
In all of this, we reached enthusiastically across the lines that often divide neighbors — religion, race, age, gender, sexual orientation, legal status, family situation, profession, and so forth. Briefly, within the work itself, we both found and founded beloved community.
Looking forward, I see so much suffering and too many broken hearts. Too many families and communities in distress. I also see a daunting amount of work. We will do it. We can, and we must.
Our glimpse of beloved community in Charlottesville seeds that hope and, I believe, confirms the promise of King’s legacy to light our path.