For the latest edition of In the Lead, we sat down for a conversation between Natosha Reid Rice and Dr. Bernice King.
Dr. King is the CEO of The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. She is a member of IWF Georgia and the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King. Her mother was a founding member of the Georgia Forum and a former IWF Hall of Fame Honoree.
NRR: Bernice, I want to touch on something you said a few months ago that I continue to repeat. You said that the movement your father and mother led was “one of the most revolutionary movements in the history of the United States, and it was done without a gun.” I think that is so powerful.
What would you say is the relevance of nonviolence today, especially in light of #MeToo, an increase in bullying, and Black Lives Matter? I think a lot of people tend to categorize nonviolence as a civil rights ideal, but it’s really something bigger than that, something that you continue to teach on today.
BAK: For us, during the latter parts of my dad’s life, he talked about nonviolence as a way of life. He saw it as something more comprehensive than something you use tactically to bring about social change. Therefore, when I started my tenure as CEO at the King Center, I wanted to find a way to relate it to the current times and put it in a language that defines it. It was under the moniker of “Kingian Nonviolence,” but we started branding it as Nonviolence365®. In my mind, Nonviolence365 is something you prescribe to every day of the week. You live it out in all of your dealings on a constant basis. The training we do is steeped in that. It is also about beginning with the end in mind. The whole “World House” concept that my father talked about, which is the Beloved Community, is that end.
When my dad talks about violence and bitterness, he notes that the aftermath of violence is bitterness, while the aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Therefore, how do we really create a sense of true peace and justice? The only pathway is through nonviolence. At the King Center, we start by saying how do we get to this Beloved Community and create a world where people can coexist with all of these diverse ways. It is deeper than what the other is doing, it is about you as well. Through our programming and teachings, we try to take you through a process that begins with you and looks at how you fit into all of this and whether you are living up to certain ideals.
For instance, when things get heated and intense, your language is important. Keeping things on a higher plane is very critical. Thus, if someone says something insulting, derogatory, hurtful or harmful, then you can’t return the insult if you embrace Nonviolence because the end goal is reconciliation. You have to keep that in mind at all times.
If my goal is to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and we are at odds, then what are the means that I have to follow to bring reconciliation to pass? I cannot add fuel to the fire. However, this doesn’t mean you don’t speak truth, but that truth must measure itself against dignity. Daddy spoke powerful words of truth, but he was never denigrating. The goal is to win people over, not to win over people. You keep these principles before you, and if you are seeking to win people over, it means you are seeking friendship and understanding. It means you are trying to defeat injustice and not the person.
I am concerned about today’s climate in our society because I see us moving toward an all-out war where people do or say the wrong things. I do think that there should be consequences for doing things wrong and that injustice should be dealt with. But, we still have acknowledge that the person saying or doing the wrong or inhumane thing is still a part of our human family.
Therefore, how do we keep our posture correct? Even if those people never change. Bull Connor never changed as far as we know, but my father was not going to crush the personhood of Bull Connor as he fought against the injustices that were done at the hand of Bull Connor. He was always going to see him as a human being with a personhood that was worthy of redemption, even if he did not want to be redeemed.
With this in mind, I am not going to be in the posture of destroying anyone or their personhood. I am going to leave room open for those I disagree with to be won over, even if they refuse to be won over. Because my goal is ultimately the beloved community, and the beloved community includes everybody. We don’t all agree in the beloved community. We are not all going to be like-minded nor are we all going to like each other, but we can respect each other. We say this a lot, that we can agree to disagree and not be so disagreeable.
NRR: The Beloved community is not absent of tension, but there is the presence of love.
BAK: Yes, there’s the presence of love (unconditional); the presence of justice; the presence of peace; the presence of respect; and the presence of compassion.
NRR: Your father, with Bull Connor as a great example, insisted on even allowing his enemies to retain their dignity. Because if you don’t, then your heart becomes corrupt, even though you’re the one who is pushing for justice.
BAK: Yes, exactly. That is why it becomes a way of life and not merely a tactic. It is about you being able to maintain a certain heart, spirit and attitude, and you being nonviolent. It is not allowing them to pull you into their shoes. With nonviolence, you have to guard against becoming your adversary.
What I see happening today in America is not just on the Republican side, it is on the Democratic side too. We all have to look at our heart and ask if we are truly leading a nonviolent life. It is a very difficult battle. It is time to step up our own sense of humanity and our own sense of decency and compassion. It is not compassion if it’s just for people who are nice to you. It is about loving your enemies, blessing those who curse you, and doing good to those who hate you.
NRR: That is hard, especially in a society where there is this mindset of a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye. As your father used to say, if we continue to move in that direction, we will all be blind and toothless.
I’ve often said this to you as I have been involved in your father’s annual commemoration, that you constantly carry the mantle and open the door for others to commemorate your father and your mother.
Oftentimes we commemorate an ideal though, not the full person. Can you tell us about your father, the person he really was, not what everyone has created him to be so they could be comfortable with him. Your father as a truth teller. He was very strong on issues of injustice and that may make others uncomfortable.
BAK: He was extremely strong.
First of all, true love is not passive and it is not dismissive of wrongdoing and injustice. In fact, most people who have a deep love for humanity and for goodness, also have a tendency to speak very powerfully concerning injustice and what is wrong. And, I think that is who my father was given his own personal experience with discrimination.
Sometimes, I think people forget that he experienced racism firsthand as a child. He was denied service at stores with his father when they went to buy shoes. Also at one point, his father was pulled over by police and addressed as “boy” as a grown man. He was stripped away from a white friend as they entered segregated elementary. Later in life as a teen, my father won 2nd place in a oratorical contest where he spoke on the US Constitution. On the way home, he was feeling really proud of himself but was forced to give up his seat on a bus to a white passenger.
These experiences shaped his worldview. In fact, as a result of the bus incident, he became very angry and acknowledged that he came very close to hating all white people. However, out of these contexts ultimately came his philosophy and methodology of nonviolence. Out of his own pain and suffering, he spoke these words of truth that were very poignant and direct. He refused to let us get away with perpetuating these discriminatory laws and practices. He spoke to where he saw contradiction between what we as a nation wrote on paper and what we were practicing because of his deep love for this nation and humanity.
He had a deep and profound belief in the greatness of America, and the ability for America to really influence and impact the world because of what we wrote on paper. But, in order for us to be true to our potential, we were going to have to face some hard truths. So he was radical in his speech, but never in a way that denigrated people or personhood. One of his hardest in your face truths was when he talked about America acting as the world’s police without any authority to do so. And, how we couldn’t police the world while perpetuating violence at home. My father further said God has a way of dealing with nations; that He can break the very backbone of our power, especially when we become too high and mighty.
NRR: We heard some of that in his speech on our country’s actions in the Vietnam War.
BAK: Yes. He was never one to go along to get along. He was for creating an equitable society where justice, fairness, and peace were a reality. As he said, “true peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” He was not saying “stop this and we will all get along.” He was saying, if we don’t have equitable circumstances, whether it is in education, economics, etc., then we won’t have true peace. It would be a false peace.
NRR: Another topic that your father spoke passionately about that made many people uncomfortable was economic justice. We saw this in his speeches in Chicago and Memphis.
BAK: He saw economic inequalities constantly, including in places central to the civil rights movement, such as lunch counters. Daddy realized that many people, especially of color, couldn’t even afford to buy a hamburger or eat in these places, and therefore experienced inequitable circumstances.
Part of the beloved community is the sharing of resources. If I don’t have access; if I don’t have opportunity because of the systems and structures that are set up. This happened because of slavery where Black Americans were not compensated at all for their free labor. America benefited, and we ended up with nothing. Therefore as a nation, we have to find a way to create equitable economic circumstances.
So he started delving into that issue, and he went to Chicago to bring attention to fair housing and living conditions.
There was also Operation Breadbasket, which people don’t talk much about. This was an initiative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) where corporations were challenged to not only hire but promote more black people. It was also the goal of Operation Breadbasket to make sure businesses in communities with people of color were treating everyone with dignity and respect, and that they re-invested dollars in those communities. My father believed that companies that didn’t re-invest in communities, promote people fairly, and treat people with dignity and respect, should be subject to economic withdrawal until they did. He believed that if a city was 35% Black, then corporations should reflect that in their hiring practices. Then, he started making connections between economics and militarism and how we were diverting funds away from social issues, especially as it related to poverty.
During this time period, President Johnson declared war on poverty, but not enough funding was set aside to deal with it. There was no real focus because all the real attention was diverted to funding the Vietnam War. They were sending all of the money over there instead of sending it here. And, he concluded that it’s not that we don’t have the resources to deal with poverty, it is that we don’t have the will to deal with these issues. Our focus and our priorities were off. He started saying that we need to ask critical questions like, why are we paying for water in a world that’s two-thirds water? In other words, how are we using these resources and how is wealth distributed. That’s what got him in trouble, when he started dealing with the way wealth was distributed.
NRR: That’s not the part of your father that people celebrate every year. We tend to overlook it. We celebrate the ideal. The truth is though that he was heating up to things that are very relevant to today’s conversations about economic injustices, the top 1%, and the major wealth gap in urban areas.