Exactly fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ascended the pulpit of the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama to preach for the first time about nonviolent protest. Stop riding the buses, he urged, start marching for freedom, and don’t stop until every American has full equal rights. “We are here because first and foremost we are American citizens,” the preacher declared. “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” His 12 year ministry to the nation had begun.
King’s message was more than a call to nonviolent protest. It was a call to transform the foundations of American society. As 1955 drew to a close, the nation was stuck in the Eisenhower era. Ike was at the height of his popularity and influence: the bland leading the bland. “Consensus was settling like snow over U.S. politics,” historian Godfrey Hodgson has written. But the consensus, like snow, was mostly white. The civil rights movement was about to demonstrate a radically alternative vision of life.
Ike was the icon of “the American way” enshrined in the white consensus. MLK would soon become the icon of a new path—a path that is still a living option for us today, though it is far more honored in the breach than the observance. The great merits of King’s path stand out most clearly when contrasted with Eisenhower's, the path that most Americans still tread because they understand no other. Eisenhower and King encapsulate both the old legacy and the new opportunity offered to us by the past half-century.
It all goes back to fundamental assumptions. Like his Christian forbears, Ike believed that people are naturally selfish. If they are going to live together, their desires must be restrained. Freedom, he once said, is merely “the opportunity for self-discipline.” The only alternative he could see was to have the government impose restraints from above. He fought communism because he feared it would deprive people of their freedom to control themselves. But he saw the communists as only one in an endless procession of groups and movements threatening freedom. Freedom would always have enemies.
The best to hope for was to contain and manage apocalyptic dangers, to practice what can best be called apocalypse management. As long as he could manage every apocalyptic threat, he would consider the “free world” victorious and the whole world at peace. Seeing the world as an arena of endless conflict and threat, Ike could not help fearing that any significant change in the world situation might spark apocalyptic change. It seemed so much safer to keep the wall of containment firm, to prevent any significant change at all. The practice of apocalypse management made peace and freedom equivalent to preserving the status quo.
In this kind of world, peace could not mean a mutual, reciprocal, give-and-take relationship with the communist “other.” That would be too risky, too dynamic, too liable to get out of control. Ike’s views made no sense unless there was an enemy fomenting apocalyptic change that had to be contained. The United States of 1955 was busy building the mightiest military machine (by far) the world had ever seen. But the U.S. did not see a threat and then respond with fear. It assumed a threat and then went out and found it. The fear came first, because it was not, ultimately, fear of the Soviet Union or communism, but fear of change itself. The U.S. had become a national insecurity state.
It still is. The “evildoers” are still out there, we are told at every turn. The boundary between freedom and its enemies, which had been enshrined in the cold war years, is still alive and well. So is the perception of a threat of apocalyptic magnitude, perpetuating an insistent demand for apocalypse management and ever greater military power. The insecurity that comes with it is alive and well, too. Most white Americans still assume that the mission of America is to prevent dangerous change by containing threats to freedom.
In December, 1955, when Dr. King became the public spokesman for the Montgomery bus boycott, he initiated the greatest challenge yet to the entire structure of the Eisenhower consensus. When King spoke of freedom he did not mean primarily self-control. He meant the God-given freedom of each one of us to develop our unique personality, the “the opportunity to fulfill [our] total capacity untrammeled by any artificial barrier.” But each of us is affected by what all others do. So each person’s personality can be fulfilled only in the context of a cooperating community: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.…You can never be what you ought to be until I become what I ought to be—and vice versa,” he preached.
From King’s perspective, the problem that plagued Eisenhower—the conflict between individual self-interest and responsibility to others—is an unreal problem. In fact, he said, "We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of morality coalesce with our self-interest." We can each fulfill ourselves only by serving the needs of others, especially when their freedom is abridged.
Eisenhower could never have understood King’s view. The president saw people as essentially isolated individual monads who must find ways to relate to each other safely. In the preacher’s view, positive relations among individuals do not have to be created by acts of self-restraint. Those relations always already exist as necessary and positive links of mutual support. They are not dangers but opportunities. Thus each can safely pursue his or her inmost desire without risk to others.
King preached a vision of a future society where everyone understood and lived by this principle. He called it “the beloved community”—a community of active interdependence and mutual service, not individual self-reliance and competition. It knows no hierarchies, no unresolvable conflicts, no oppression. Diversity is fully valued, because the distinctive qualities and potentials of every individual are fully valued. Unity comes from each one appreciating and enhancing the qualities that make every other one different and unique.
The beloved community is a dynamic place, with each person constantly growing in their own unique way and helping others to do the same. It does not embody Eisenhower's ideal of peace as a stable status quo. King decried that as merely a “negative peace.” He called for building the “positive peace” of a community actively grappling with and overcoming conflicts to produce fulfillment for all. For King, the essence of peace is just what Eisenhower feared most: uncontrollable, unpredictable, mutual, reciprocal, give-and-take relationships. To live at peace is merely to accept the truth of things. We all, in fact, live in a world that is uncontrollable and unpredictable.
In this dynamic network of mutuality, there can be no enemies. Eisenhower's view of a world divided into friend and foe is not merely a wrong moral choice. It is a mistaken perception of reality. Treating another person as an enemy perpetuates the mistake. It simply will not work to pursue the goal of community by means that drive people apart. That can only “intensify the cleavage in a broken community.” Even when violence is used to promote a just cause, it destroys the very community it seeks to create. So violence can never unify. It can produce only an endless cycle of chaotic conflict. The way to create the beloved community is to reconcile what has been separated, responding to injustice and hate with love.
Eisenhower would have dismissed King’s vision as an irrelevant utopian ideal. Not so, King insisted. It is an eminently realistic goal. Nonviolence is a proven way to bring people together and make the beloved community a present reality. Once the illusion of self versus other or friend versus foe is dispelled, win-win options almost always appear. At every present moment, people of good will and accurate understanding can help each other fulfill their most genuine desires, simply by making choices that benefit both self and others.
King saw no need to protect the world against an apocalyptic moment. Indeed, as he understood, policies of apocalypse management offer no real protection or security. They only make the nation more insecure. They only perpetuate the illusion of person against person and friend against foe, engendering a fear that suffuses the nation’s life.
Unlike Eisenhower, King did not fear the changes wrought by fulfilled desire. He could see nothing preventing us from making free choices every day that create the beloved community in the present moment. Every day, we can initiate radical changes that bring our world closer to genuine freedom and justice. This is the process of peace. Peace can be here, now, precisely because human desire, coming from the center of someone’s being, is not being restrained. It is being fulfilled in ways that benefit each because they benefit all.
Fifty years later, the two paths symbolized by Eisenhower and King still lie before us. Most Americans still take Eisenhower’s path, because they understand it instinctively. It is part of the cultural air our nation has been breathing for far more than a half-century. Relatively few choose King’s path, because few can easily or fully understand it.
But those who are on that path less taken are keeping alive a tradition born in the movements for civil rights and for peace in Vietnam. They still call us to an alternative direction for our nation’s policies, its outlook, and its very life. We can always choose a different direction. It is always time to make a new choice. The path that started out from Dr. King’s preaching in Montgomery still awaits us.
In a sense, though, Dr. King’s dream is really a very old choice. As he himself said, “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” We do not need to invent a new American dream. We need only choose to make the heart of the old American dream come true for all.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea and three books on Dwight Eisenhower.