Dr. King and Our Beloved Community, 2019

Sandra Richardson
Sandra Richardson, co-organizer of the Our Beloved Community celebration held Aug. 17 at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Photo by Jim Walsh

In the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “creating our beloved community,” a nation-spanning initiative that bonded African Americans together in an effort to combat the violence and hardships of racism in a country that turned its back on them post-slavery.

Time and again the great civil rights leader invoked the phrase: “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness” (1957); “The way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community” (1959); and, “Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community” (1957).

“Dr. King talked about the beloved community, and I think that especially in these times, we have to have places and spaces where we can affirm that,” said Sandra Richardson, co-organizer of the Our Beloved Community celebration held Aug. 17 at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Kingfield. “It’s a time to reflect on community but also to reflect on: Do we still have a commitment to social justice? Do we still have a commitment to jobs and housing? Do we still have a commitment to undoing racism?”

With a white racist in the White House and white nationalism growing more mainstream and more violent, it’s no stretch to say that King’s legacy is in danger of being forgotten, if not outright erased.

“I really feel like it’s 1963, 21st century-style,” said Richardson, a consultant for community nonprofits and a member of the park’s legacy committee. “When I look around and I see that for black and brown people, housing, education, criminal justice system, health care … it’s all systemically getting worse.

“If you’re a poor person of color, it’s a whole lot harder to get out of poverty than it was 20 years ago. Red lining and housing segregation is as real as it ever was. … The humanity of people is no longer covertly on a continuum. That continuum is front and center, with white and male being on the top, and I think we see that in decisions that are being made and in tweets that are going out. It’s a very deliberate use of race and racism not just to dehumanize and marginalize, but to use effectively as a political weapon.”

The event at King’s namesake park is the ninth annual Our Beloved Community celebration. It comes at a time when the civil rights movement has stalled, and when black and brown people in the United States have been attacked by avowed white supremacists. At such a time, what part of King’s legacy does Richardson hang onto?

“One is [the King quote] ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’” she said. “Because I think that it’s dangerous not to have hope, and when I see what’s happening, I think it’s designed to make groups that are already marginalized feel hopeless and that there’s no point in resisting. I think that we have to be very careful not to [give up] hope.”

Towards righting that damage, Richardson and the rest of the King park legacy council have created the Charles E. Mays Beloved Community Award.

“Mr. Mays was a social worker and a youth organizer with the NAACP, and he ran the only African-American chapter of AARP in the state out of Sabathani [Community Center],” said Richardson. “He was very kind and very shrewd. … He was an organizer, a tactician, and he understood how to get a sense of your own power and wield it.”

The first annual Charles E. Mays Beloved Community Award was presented to state representative Jeff Hayden (District 62) on Aug. 17. “We wanted to give the award to someone who exemplifies giving back and trying to figure out ways to benefit community,” Richardson said.

Originally Nicollet Field, the park was renamed for King upon his assassination in 1968. Today, the King park building overflows with images of King and his words. Picnic benches and contemplative benches are filled with parkgoers at all hours of the day and night; the park’s “Freedom Form #2” sculpture, originally dedicated to honor King in 1970, has been moved to a more prominent location, and the park playground is themed around African-American inventors and the civil rights movement.

All thanks to the vigilance of park’s the legacy council, whose membership includes longtime Southside activist Betty Tisel, community organizer and activist Lorna Pettus, and Richardson’s 88-year-old mother, Virginia.

“At the legacy council, we are what we say we’re all about,” said Richardson. “We meet once a month. There’s no food, there’s no money, but we’re here.

“When we talk about the negativity that’s happening in the world, [the Aug. 17 celebration] is also a chance for us to make some critical connections with people who believe in racial justice, people who believe in social justice and people who believe in beloved community.”

Which, according to the King Center in Atlanta, goes like this: “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at jimwalsh086@gmail.com