Defining “The Beloved Community”

Published 6:38 pm Saturday, January 23, 2010

A lot of back and forth on recent comments at has brought up the phrase, “The Beloved Community.” Most people recognize this as coming from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who used the phrase many times in speeches during the civil rights struggle.

Some have said the phrase originated with Dr. King and meant the community oppressed by unnatural law, i.e. Jim Crow in the South. They contend that The Beloved Community is the group that would emerge after African-Americans were finally free to walk about and live as their white counterparts. these same people also argue King meant the phrase to place a responsibility on those involved in the struggle to protect and care for one another.

It seems this has been taken out of context somewhat since Dr. King was murdered in 1968. Here’s basically what Dr. King wrote in 1957 as an explanation for the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “The ultimate aim of SCLC is to foster and create the ‘beloved community’ in America where brotherhood is a reality …”

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Most historians of the era understand that Dr. King had feet in two worlds. He was a leader of African-American struggle to overthrow Jim Crow in the South. But Dr. King also was a philosopher-theologian in the North, where he was educated. He could speak the language of the northern intellectual, having received his doctorate at Boston College.

When King attended his seminars for his doctorate in the 1950s, one of the key philosophies in ethical religious movements was based in the writings of Josiah Royce, a philosopher/theologian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Royce rejected the rugged individualism of the philosophers of his time, including William James (a good friend), Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Instead, Royce posited that lives mean nothing unless the person is a member of a community. To that community, the individual was loyal and served it with single focus.

Based on his idea of loyalty, Royce acknowledged there are various types of communities: those defined by people who had joined together for the good to build and those defined by people who joined together to destroy other ideas or to live in conflict. It is from this duality that Royce proposed another ideal community, which was the Beloved Community in which people would live together and dedicate themselves to loyalty and truth. This is total idealism.

Then, the difference between the two is that King used the term and Royce’s philosophy into a cry for social justice — a method of working for an end that in succeeding years has become a tactic of various groups, even something we see in Selma community today with the Freedom Foundation.

In his talks recorded and made public by Alan Connell, Mark Duke also speaks of the idealistic Beloved Community of Dr. King and of the volunteers’ efforts to bring that to Selma.

This is not to say that the aim of a utopian society is good or bad. Essentially, this type of manipulation is just that — a way of proselytizing. As far as the Freedom Foundation, some accepted the concept because of the volunteerism and good works. Others apparently came in because of the single-mindedness of the group (at least from the sermons and talks made public).

Still others aren’t willing to accept that definition. They do not believe that one person has the corner on truth and justice. The Beloved Community, then, for them is just an ideal, or perhaps cannot exist because there is no reality to truth and justice — they are abstracts that can’t be attained.

So, there must be communities that live in harmony and communities that live in conflict.

Back to Royce’s conundrum.

Where does it end?

Leesha Faulkner is editor of The Selma Times-Journal. She may be reached at 410-1730 or e-mail her at