The pantheon of historic African-American leadership is full of brilliant and courageous individuals who sacrificed personal gain to enrich the lives of others. From Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner, to Ida B. Wells and Martin Delaney, Mary McCleod-Bethune and Frederick Douglass, all the way to Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer, black leadership has been unwavering in its commitment to improving the conditions and thereby enhancing the freedom of black people. The life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., however, stands alone in relation to the noble tradition of which he is a part.
It is not the breadth of the reach of Dr. King’s leadership that establishes his work as unique—for Marcus Garvey had a bigger global following. Nor is it the fact he worked for $1 salary and was completely uninterested in accumulating fame or material wealth—for Malcolm made the same sacrifice. Martin Luther King Jr. was different because he held two things in a kind of aesthetic tension: the social facts of our daily lives and the spiritual reality of our human existence.
Dr. King lived and eventually died holding onto the fundamental spiritual truth that “we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, an inescapable network of mutuality.” It is through this spiritual lens that he viewed the social facts of racial and economic inequality. This is why his analysis always started with the spiritual reality that white people and black people had more in common than we did that separated us; then he moved courageously to addressing the social facts that divided us. Of course, social facts and spiritual reality are inseparable, but they are not identical: Martin Luther King Jr. refused to confuse them.
From this perspective, it seems that in many ways what Dr. King suggested to us is that the greatest harm we do as social animals actually comes from our minds when we mistake social facts for spiritual reality. He realized that if we accepted our social facts as spiritually “real” we would be embracing an illusion that would ultimately assist us in committing a kind of spiritual suicide. For when we substitute social facts for spiritual reality we have lost track of the fundamental spiritual truth that we are all connected.
Lacking awareness of the basic spiritual truth of the harmony of all, we often only see division. The repetition of the social facts of division and separation—an obsession of our media saturated daily lives—is painful. It can lead us to more suffering and deeper disappointment. But there is no place for disappointment in what Martin defined as the spiritual quest to correct social facts: He wrote, “Disappointment leads to despair, despair to blindness, and blindness to bitterness.”
It is because of his awareness of and commitment to the spiritual truth of our fundamental connectedness that Dr. King taught that until we are all healed, nobody is healed. Thus the harmonious end that he wanted was a place he called “Beloved Community.” It is where social fact became spiritual reality and spiritual reality became social fact. This is why he was always careful to say that we had oppressors not enemies; and it is also why only the spiritual weapon of transformative love in the form of nonviolent social protest could be used to bring spiritual reality back into proper view. For King, “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”
Martin’s greatness—to work from a spiritual awareness to address social facts—not only establishes him as unique among the great pantheon of African-American leaders, but also it is instructive to our community and electoral leaders. It teaches us to understand that there is always more that connects us than divides us and that the only way to reduce suffering is not for one side to prevail over another, but both sides to heal. This is the spiritual reality that Dr. King lived from and died for; and it is this message of harmony and the de-escalation of aggression, frustration and division that should inform our remembrance and reflection of him as we begin the second decade of the 21st century.
Andre C. Willis is an assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale Divinity School.