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Martin Luther King: Remembering What We Forgot

Posted: 02/03/11 01:43 PM ET

By John McKnight

In the recent annual celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the words we used are about discrimination, civil rights, freedom and justice. They are words reflecting an important part of his legacy. However, missing was a word that was at the center of Dr. King's life: non-violence.

This fact became clear to me in the late '60s when rebellions broke out throughout African-American communities in most cities. There was violence, looting and burning.

At that time, I was a part of the Chicago Freedom Movement that had invited Dr. King and his team to Chicago. They agreed to help, and Dr. King lived in a tenement on the West Side.

Dr. King was in Chicago when the rebellion broke out on the West Side. The next day, as the neighborhoods were burning, he sent a message calling all the members of the Freedom Movement to an emergency meeting. He urged us to do all we could to restore peace. And in quiet despair at the close of his remarks, he said, "I will stand here for non-violence if I am the last person standing."

Dr. King is usually described as a person who believed non-violence was a means to the end: justice. At that meeting with Dr. King as the city burned, it struck me that for him, non-violence was not really a means. For him, non-violence was a way of life. At the time, he opposed violence by police and by our military in Vietnam. Were he with us today, it's clear he would oppose our Afghan adventure and gang violence.

One of Dr. King's non-violence mentors was another pacifist clergyman, Rev. A.J. Muste. He famously said, "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."

To honor Dr. King's legacy we need to go the peaceful way, not because it sometimes works, but because it is the best way of life. The peaceful way creates a community where life and creativity can flourish. This is why a village where children are raised with the experience of cooperation and an appreciation of difference is the beginning of a community that Dr. King called us to create. He sought more than justice. He sought a community where the "habits of the heart" would guide us on our way.

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Editor's note: On Feb. 1, 1960 four students who became known as the Greensboro Four staged their first sit-in to protest segregation at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Organizers of sit-ins throughout the country were inspired by their example of non-violent resistance to discrimination against African-Americans.

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John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is the co-author of "Building Communities from the Inside Out" and the author of "The Careless Society." He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

Peter Block is founder of Designed Learning. John and Peter are co-authors of "The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods."

See other McKnight and Block posts at www.abundantcommunity.com.