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POOLSIDE, RIVERSIDE AND NOW: Lessons from a Grittier Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

01/11/2017 03:31 pm ET
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This coming weekend, millions around the country will begin to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When most of us think of King, we often recall the image of him standing beside the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on that sunny August day in 1963. Before a crowd of more than 250,000, we hear him passionately conveying his dream for the nation. He yearned for America to finally and truly become a beloved community - a place of love, justice and equal opportunity - for all citizens.

But less than five years later, in 1967, a different King took the pulpit at Riverside Church in New York City. It was clear that something in him had shifted. In 1967, that crowd at Riverside saw a changed man - a grittier King. In what has been called his most important speech, King spoke passionately against war and for social justice. Yet, he sounded less hopeful and more measured about the condition of America. Later that same year, King said his dream had turned into a nightmare.

The visionary Poolside King of 1963 remains inspiring to people around the nation and world. That is as it should be. But especially in 2017, all Americans have a great deal more to learn from the wiser and tougher Riverside King, who said, "we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values."

Three forces may have helped to shift the Poolside King to become the Riverside King by 1967. First, the ongoing murders of innocent victims with almost blanket impunity for their assailants. This began when the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four little girls less than three weeks after King's dream speech. Then, a reformist and charismatic U.S. President named Kennedy was no longer the nation's leader. And, finally, a controversial Vietnam War triggered a fierce debate about what progress looks like in America and around the world.

Fifty years later, our nation faces similar challenges. Today, we too often mourn the violent deaths of innocent people, especially young black males. Later this month, a reformist and charismatic U.S. President named Obama will no longer be the Nation's leader. And the controversial 2016 election battle has certainly prompted another fierce debate about what progress looks like in America and around the world.

And as in 1967, the possibility of chaos in America still seems at least as credible as the promise of community. But we can and should look to our history as a guide. Grounded in both his upbringing and his undergraduate experience, King had an abiding and maturing emphasis on character-driven, moral intelligence.

In 1947, King was a Morehouse College student concerned about how to remedy political and economic chaos. In an article for the school's student-led Maroon Tiger he wrote, "We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education."

King also believed that an ideal education would help engender generosity and service. In 1957, as his ministry grew, he told an audience in Montgomery, Alabama, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"

So, by 1967, when King again expressed concern about chaos in our nation, he still believed in the universal power of an education that stressed moral intelligence and developing the kind of character required to make a new and better world.

That summer of 1967, King released his fourth and final book entitled, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

It was the right question then, and it is certainly the right question now. In both the book and many of his subsequent speeches, King described the importance of moral intelligence. He also became wiser and more realistic and rigorous in his articulation and pursuit of justice and the beloved community. As King understood it, that beloved community would emerge when many more responsible citizens accepted their roles as dynamic servant leaders, whatever their lot in life ... since anybody can serve.

Morehouse College students are now returning for the Spring semester. Since the College was founded in 1867, 2017 marks our sesquicentennial. As we begin to celebrate 150 years of equipping leaders to reshape and improve the worlds they entered, I cannot help but think of King's visit to Morehouse just 50 years ago. In November of 1967, he attended what would be his final Morehouse College Board of Trustees meeting. Given the chaos and uncertainty of 1967, we can only imagine that Trustee King was focused on how best to ensure that Morehouse College could strengthen its capacity to produce informed and morally-centered leaders for a troubled world.

Fifty years later, Morehouse classes convene again at a time of chaos, yet with students still in search of community. Given today's toxic political, conflict-ridden climate, perhaps many of us need to shift, as King once did, to a grittier, Riverside mindset. At the very least, it is time for us all to be wiser about the way forward for the nation.

Many more of us should recognize that, if King was right about the arc of the moral universe being long, then periods of chaotic uncertainty and disruption are not unusual. But if he was right also about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, then more Americans must recommit ourselves to the task of fighting for a better, fairer world that is characterized by far more educational equity and equal opportunity.

We must use an emphasis on moral intelligence to keep the Poolside King's dream of the beloved community clear, and the Riverside King's quest for the beloved community invigorated.

After 150 years, that remains the legacy and destiny of Morehouse College and a calling for us all.

John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. is president of Morehouse College.

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