On April 16, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” Rev. King and others were being held for violating a court order against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” The letter was written in response to “A Call for Unity,” a letter composed by eight local white clergy members. Their letter called for an end to anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and to “find proper channels” to achieve “a better Birmingham.”
In response, Rev. King wrote, “your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” He called their letter a “superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
Rev. King’s response could have easily been directed to white moderates who oppose Black Lives Matter as extremist, who condemned the 2020 George Floyd protest as counterproductive or who blunt their criticism of Donald Trump’s embrace of white supremacy with some nonspecific reference to good policies he had.
Sadly, I must share Rev. King’s analysis of who and what constitutes the greatest impediment to justice. In the “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” King wrote these words:
“…that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ "
The great enemy of justice are those moderates who feign outrage at societal injustice, but whose outrage conveniently disappears when real change threatens their status. These moderates are more comfortable leaving unchallenged the assumed moral authority of certain institutions, traditions and practices that are the purveyors of injustice rather than confronting their own role in maintaining these institutions. The hard truth is that the comfort of the status quo is always preferable to pursuing the demands of justice.
The “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail’' calls for us to reject the justice of those white clergy members and to redefine justice so that it recognizes the humanity of all the diverse peoples of this nation. A nation of multiple races, diverse ethnic groups, LGTBQ+ folks, diverse faiths, atheists, agnostics, the poor, the old, and all who are marginalized. It asks: How do we achieve the beloved community?
Although the term “the beloved community” is most closely associated with Rev. King, it was first coined, in 1913, by American philosopher Josiah Royce. Royce believed “life means nothing, either theoretically or practically” unless we center ourselves as fellow sojourners in building community grounded in love, redemption, and reconciliation.
The beloved community is not simply a philosophical concept, but a way of understanding justice that moves beyond retribution to building a society that is inclusive and redemptive. A community where, as the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone said, “each person is free to fully develop his or her full potential.”
As Americans, we have become comfortable with a view of justice that preferences law and order over compassion and a recognition of our shared humanity. The American concept of justice works against building community because its primary, if not sole, focus is preserving the social order, retribution, and punishment — not redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. It is this limited focus that constrains our ability to create the beloved community.
Rev. King said, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” This King holiday his words are our collective call as we accept the challenge of creating the beloved community.
Terrance Carroll (Twitter @speakercarroll) is a Baptist preacher, attorney, former police officer and former speaker of the Colorado House, the only African American to ever hold that position in Colorado. He is also a columnist for the Denver Post, where this column originally appeared.