King's Civil Rights Act Turns Forty:
Leading the Beloved Community in the Twenty-First Century

Judith M. Green, Fordham University, New York City, USA


Martin Luther King's methods and insights about guiding ideals and the real processes of change that led to and beyond passage of the1964 Civil Rights can teach us valuable lessons for transforming local, national, and world problems that confront citizen leaders of his ideal-motivated, activistic "Beloved Community" in the twenty-first century. The first section of this essay analyzes the achievement of the Civil Rights Act within an extended time process, frames its content within a set of nesting social institutions and processes, and evaluates its importance at practical and symbolic levels.  The second section suggests seven lessons for leadership in our own era derived from King's example.  The final section draws on King's last writings to outline and explore three broad focuses – "racism" broadly conceived, poverty, and militarism – for our continuing struggle toward global and local actualizations of the "Beloved Community" in the twenty-first century.

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Martin Luther King's methods and insights about guiding ideals and the real processes of change that led to and beyond passage of the1964 Civil Rights can teach us valuable lessons for transforming local, national, and world problems that confront citizen leaders of his "Beloved Community" in the twenty-first century. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented more than one hundred years of multigenerational struggle for deeper fulfillment of America's democratic ideals by citizen leaders of all races, religions, regions, and socio-economic locations who argued, sacrificed, and persisted through setbacks, eventually achieving its passage during times of national and international turmoil not unlike our own.  Studying the lessons of their victory forty years ago can aid us in framing and leading an agenda for continuing the struggle today.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was designed to coordinate a web of legal and social relationships, existing and projected.  These involved various elements of the U.S. Constitution, earlier legislative acts, Supreme Court decisions, and executive orders and operations, as well as gradually changing daily customs, expectations, and self-understandings transacting within history-based distributive locations of political, economic, educational, and social power and prestige.  It included seven key aspects that were expected to enhance its dual objectives of non-discrimination and substantively equal treatment, employing structures and processes to:

  1. Enforce the constitutional right to vote, regardless of race, income, and education,
  2. Authorize injunctive relieve against discrimination in public accommodations,
  3. Authorize affirmative protection of constitutional rights ("desegration") in public facilities and public education,
  4. Extend the Commission on Civil Rights,
  5. Prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs,
  6. Establish a Commission on Equal Opportunity, and
  7. "Other purposes"

Though these may now seem like modest objectives, given the sweep of American democratic values and the strength of the constitutional language that aims to guarantee them, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was and still is of great importance in four different ways.  First, it is an important legal tool that still has educative as well as judicial and executive "teeth."   Second, it is an equally important social-historical validation of the multigenerational struggle of countless democracy-minded Americans of all races and religions who argued and sacrificed to persuade others that justice requires equality.  Third, and complementarily, it is an inspiration for others in America and in far-away lands who would catch from its context and contents the fire of the "freedom revolution" King wrote about.  Fourth, it offers a practical case study in achieving deep social changes through nonviolent means, for which King and the Civil Rights Movement were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.

King's leadership of the struggle for and beyond the Civil Rights Act teaches at least seven lessons that offer guidance if we would multiply similar achievements and them globally.

  1. Leaders stand on the shoulders of those who prepared for them, and prepare for those who come after them.  That is, leadership participates in a time process that requires patience, planning, appreciative yet critical study of the lessons of one's change heritage, inquiry-based awareness of the details of one's current situation and of the outlook and needs of rival actors, strategic good judgment about progressive steps to strive for that would be useful as tools and inspiration for the future, and a realistic acceptance of the possibility that the goals that give meaning to one's own life struggle may not be achieved until after one's death.  As King said, "I may not get there with you, but I've seen the promised land" – and that must be enough for leaders of change processes that may take generations to consolidate into aspects of normal experience.  However, as King also pointed out, time is neutral toward change – nothing in the nature of time per se assures that progressive change will occur without ongoing struggle, yet there are currents within events that make some moments propitious for efforts that would be untimely in less-developed moments, and too late if those moments are missed. 
  2. Leaders grow through serving, listening, reflecting, and creative suffering.  Serving involves attunement to the needs of others that creates educative opportunities to learn how to meet those needs effectively in their operative context.  Listening involves what Dewey called the "undergoing" aspect of experience, in which what Mead identified as the "me" absorbs information through communicative processes with others before the "I" responds and initiates and new moment in the ongoing transaction.  Reflecting as King modeled it involves withdrawal to "listen to one's heart," to consider the meanings of what has gone before, to imaginatively test out the consequences and implications of various alternatives for future courses of action, to "bounce ideas" off others who share one's values and goals differ in standpoints and thought processes.  Creative suffering, especially if communicative and well-timed, can deepen one's commitment, illuminate relative priorities, and show what justice requires in that situation.
  3. Leaders need both a community of collaborative support and a well of inner strength. King's leadership operated within a core team, within a wider leadership network, and within a broad movement that had strong, diverse ties to the wider culture.  This pattern of social nesting assured multiple points of entry, meaningful communication, and helpful critical challenge, as well as sharing and specializing among the diverse leadership responsibilities that must be fulfilled if a social movement is to be effective in achieving desirable goals.  At the same time, King and the other, less-hallowed leaders who operated at all levels of this social nesting had to find sources of hope, energy, and reflective guidance within themselves to meet adversity and even personal violence calmly and with confidence that higher values would prevail over time if they continued to earnestly struggle.  Such inner strength requires but goes beyond personal character; it requires sources of ongoing renewal of one's hope and vision, as well as effective practices of accessing these sources.
  4. Leaders need both a hope-stirring democratic vision and a practical, well-organized transformative process.  King may be best remembered for his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, when thousands of members of the Beloved Community gathered together caught hope and energy from him, and millions more around the world were challenged and inspired by his words as transmitted by television and preserved on film and videotape.  The content of that great expression of a future vision was intentionally framed in terms of a democratic heritage of still unfulfilled promise that deeply resonated in the memory and values of Americans.  Yet it also has resonated with people in other places whose heritages and situations are very different than those of King's original audience, perhaps because, as King argued in "The World House"  (1967), some of these ideas are contagious, and a "Freedom Revolution" has spread them world-wide.  However, passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also required an effective, well-disciplined organization able to guide a larger process of striving for specific objectives, and using public awareness of that struggle to stimulate deeper processes of reflection, self-criticism, and at least partially willing change.
  5. Leaders are citizens who find the caring and courage to begin where they're needed; to respond to manifest needs and to continue in their efforts until they bear fruit.  Such citizen-leaders need both love and self-discipline.  King expressed the responsibilities he sought to fulfill as those of a citizen as often as he expressed them as those of a Christian, in both cases seeing his responsibilities as shared equally with his fellows.  Paul Rogat Loeb's recent book, Soul of a Citizen: Lining With Conviction in a Cynical Time (1999) includes many stories of ordinary citizens reaching out in small ways to meet others' needs that intertwined in various ways with their own life situation and prospects for hope, security, and a wider sense of purpose and value in living that comes from collaborative struggle to fulfill one's ideals, an experience too often absent from the lives of contemporary Americans and other frightened, harried, and socially isolated citizens of other wealthy nations in the twenty-first century.  It is through these first, small ways of serving that many citizens who have emerged as leaders for change toward King's Beloved Community first broke through their own feelings of isolation, apathy, and powerlessness to reclaim hope and to experience the reality of their own effectiveness.
  6. Leaders focus energy on a limited number of specific projects while keeping the bigger picture constantly in mind, relating ends-in-view to larger goals and guiding values.  When King moved his family and a part of his core team to Chicago to learn the lessons of how life lived there and where specific changes were needed for poor, embattled African Americans, his aide Andrew Young worried that they were "spread too thin," and that they had gone into an area for which their previous experiences as Southerners had not prepared them.  Many expressed similar concerns when he spoke out against the Vietnam War.  Yet King also was right to argue, as he did in "The World House" (1967), that issues of poverty and violence underlie issues of civil rights, allowing only limited progress in law and popular opinion without deeper transformations in American political economy and in our "common sense" ideas about justice, democracy, and human nature.
  7. Leaders can help to shape the future of the world, if they draw effectively on the deepest future-shaping forces within this world: love, loyalty, creative hope, self-sacrifice, future-oriented vision, effective organization, and the long-term, disciplined, committed, courageous, collective effort of countless fellow citizens.

On what problems should we focus our transformative energies as citizen-leaders of the Beloved Community in the twenty-first century?  King's "World House" continues to offer good guidance to mapping both the democratic values we must strive to actualize more fully as well as current obstacles to global community that function as dynamic, shape-shifting engines of chaos.  Many of the latter still can be grouped into King's three broad divisions of racism, poverty, and militarism, but these must be nuanced to reflect subsequent developments and insights, as well as past and continuing failures to heed to King's warning those who "sleep through a revolution" also help to shape the future.

King framed the first obstacle and engine of chaos as "racism," but what he meant by this goes far beyond what America has meant by "race" historically to include many additional forms of illegitimate, group-linked disparagements, exclusions, down-valuing, and customary harms, including those carried perpetuated by various social institutions in ways that may no longer reflect actively anti-egalitarian intentions of current decision makers.  In "The World House," in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, in "A Time to Break Silence," and in many other places, King explained this first axis of strife in terms of customary, sometimes passionate perceptions of a lesser dignity or "somebodiness" of members of certain historically defined social groups, as well as a sense of their lesser entitlement to be heard, to be fully included and valued within the institutions and practices of the social mainstream, and to be rewarded equitably for their contributions to society's overall welfare.  King explicitly included dimensions of ethnicity, nationality, religion, class, and stage of economic development in his late remarks about the danger of this first kind of refusal to recognize the full humanity of members of other historically significant social groups, especially those one's own group has defined as "enemy" or has exploited in its quest for wealth and for the basis of an unjustifiable, hierarchically structured, group-based self-esteem. 

Clearly, in the wake of 9/11 and with an eye to the wider significance of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian struggle, King would have diagnosed resurgent anti-semitism, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments, and growing hatred of the West as closely related forms of this same dangerous disease, while noting power differences among its manifestations.  Had he lived a few years longer, King might well have recognized sexism as part of this same illness, a problem not only in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, where a Taliban government excluded women and girls from education and the professions, consigning them to live under male authority as they had in the ancient past, but also in the United States of America today, where conservative Christians still call for women to acknowledge the "headship" of their husbands, women still are rare at the highest levels of leadership in churches, business, and government, and women still are paid on average 25% less than men.  Undoubtedly, King would have championed the struggle for equality and full inclusion of the "handicapped" or "differently abled" in American society.  Perhaps he also would have joined his beloved life partner, Coretta Scott King, and two of his trusted younger colleagues, Julian Bond and John Lewis, in arguing that continuing discrimination against gays, lesbians, and their families is part of this same disease, and that the churches as well as business, civic, and government leaders must work together to heal it.

Even on the day King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, the conception of civil rights for which he argued went far beyond non-discrimination to include effective access to practical means for achieving full social equality.  It was refusal to make this connection that King criticized in highlighting his second engine of chaos: tolerance of poverty within modern societies that have the knowledge and wealth to prevent it and to empower the human lives that are blighted daily by its manifestations.  The kind of agriculture-based subsistence living of self-sustaining families that fueled John Locke's seventeenth century thought experiment about property rights in a state of nature is now a thing of the past.  Thus, libertarian economists and political conservatives who draw on Locke's conception of individual liberty to justify great accumulations of individual wealth, and on Adam Smith's conception of emerging capitalist economies to suggest that self-interest will lead entrepreneurs to promote the welfare of all through the coordinating mechanism of markets, are "sleeping through a revolution" while steering a moving bus.  King's critique of such unrealistic thinking and of its practical costs was not a Marxist one, but rather a call for "social democracy" that fulfilled the promise of America's founders to all their inheritors, and that reflects the teachings of all the great world religions about the practical meaning of love.

In spite of empirical evidence to the contrary, some of today's "sleeping drivers" try to lull others into believing that the rising tide of global economic "liberalization" will eventually lift all boats, yet a recent study sponsored by the United Nations that included among its principal authors the Nobel Prize winner and former World Bank chief Joseph Stiglitz warns a world public that the gap between rich and poor nations is continuing to widen, as is the gap between rich and poor within wealthy nations (Becker 2004).  Within twenty-first century America, this growing gap between rich and poor has made crowded core cities dangerous and increasingly empty rural counties desperate.  Inequalities in funding for public school systems in different locales have now reached such proportions that, while some American students experience world-class educations, others experience demoralized teachers, violent and socially stressed classmates, derelict facilities, too few textbooks, and inadequate training in new technologies.  In many developing countries, economic globalization's widespread geographic dislocation and damage to local cultures, in combination with unstable and often corrupt national governments, as well as insufficient practical aid from the world's wealthiest nations to help them develop their educational systems and infrastructures, though these developments have been touted as the keys to gaining an equitable share in the world's future prosperity, have led to widespread distrust of Western countries and the allegedly democratic values they represent.

Thus, the Beloved Community must continue to struggle for economic justice in the World House in the twenty-first century on rural, urban, regional, national, and international levels.

In America, we must promote cooperative efforts to generate economic stimuli for both core cities and rural areas.  We must promote equal educational opportunities for all our citizens.  We must continue King's efforts to assure that all have access to affordable housing, to diverse, well-functioning neighborhoods, and to home financing.  We transform the current pattern of "competition for the bottom" among America's regions in terms of jobs, wages, benefits, and working conditions into a "competition for the best" that will assure a collaborative share in corporate success for workers and the communities that make that such success possible.  We must assure that all Americans can meet the on-going, substantive needs that the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights treats as entitlements of all people at all ages and stages of their lives:  food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care.  At the same time, we must promote the kinds of international trade agreements and sources of access to developmental assistance for poorer nations that will assure that America's collectively high quality of living is not purchased at the price of unsustainable lives and natural environments in other parts of the world.

If we aim to end the scourge of terrorism and of seemingly endless and fruitless wars to stamp it out – King's third obstacle and engine of chaos – we must actively assist citizens of poor and war-ravaged countries to achieve educational, economic, and cultural transformations toward dignified, satisfying, sustainable lives.  These are key elements of the pursuit of peace King rightly saw as the only way to secure our own lives.  In the process of making wise choices about how to avoid war's devastation and to feed and care for all the world's peoples, we must at the same time protect the stability, integrity, and beauty of the largest and most basic dimension of our "World House" – the biotic community upon which all of us depend for the possibility of living whole, healthy, meaningful lives.  By collaborating on all of these goals as volunteer members of a world-wide, post-9/11 Beloved Community-in-the-becoming, each of us can offer ourselves and others opportunities to rebuild our local, national, and international communities while living meaningful, effective, hopeful lives that leave fear and apathy behind.


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Moses, Greg.  1997.  Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Philosophy of Nonviolence (New York: The Guilford Press).

Washington, James Melvin.  1986.  A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco).