In its early days, the civil rights movement in the South defined its mission primarily as an attempt to reorganize the social and political order through the radical idea of Christian love, specifically through the practice of nonviolence.


Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders consciously emphasized the Judeo-Christian inspiration for their convictions, stating that the ultimate goal of their efforts was not simply to achieve social justice, but to create, in King's words, a "beloved community" on earth. By the end of the 1960s, that vision of the beloved community had come apart. 


In his book, The Beloved Community, author Charles Marsh traces this path of disintegration and disillusionment, but also a parallel, lesser-known history, in which religious leaders continued to pursue this vision over the past 40 years. Following is a short conversation with Marsh, provided by Basic Books.


Where does the term "beloved community" come from? What does it mean?


It comes from Dr. King, from the final days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and an amazing but little known speech he gave on nonviolence and social change.   The United States Supreme Court had just a few weeks earlier given the black protesters a victory in their boycott of segregated buses; and on this joyful evening in December of 1956, King paused to reflect on the meaning of the sacrifices and convictions that had carried them through the year.  King said that while a boycott had been necessary to challenge unjust laws, it did not represent the goal of the movement.  "The end is reconciliation," he said, "the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community." 


That line just pounded me the first time I read it.  For King, the beloved community was tied to the Christian doctrine of the Kingdom of God, and King believed that the movement was about making the Kingdom a reality on earth.


The beloved community gave the civil rights movement its unifying spiritual vision.  But after 1964, the movement drifted away from the black church, and the vision splintered and fell into the hands of identity groups whose missions were no larger than concern for their own flourishing.  Without a vision, the people perish, the Proverbs say.  In a real way, race relations in this country remain frozen in this historical moment.


This sounds like a sad story. 


Yes, it is disheartening.  And the story didn't get any better with the dawning of a new decade.  The Seventies began with America's invasion of Cambodia, the killing of student protesters at Kent State and Jackson State, and George Wallace urging his fellow southern governors to defy federal integration orders.