DURING THE unseasonably warm autumn of 1951, 22-year-old Martin King Jr. began his doctoral work in systematic theology at Boston University. Wearing his good suit in a stifling classroom, he was first introduced to the work of philosopher and ethicist Josiah Royce. King read Royce's well-regarded 1913 book The Problem of Christianity and wrestled with Royce's metaphysical values of loyalty, communitarian ideals, and the role of the individual within a group.
But don't let the high academic or philosophical language fool you. Royce was interested in only one thing: Love. It was the hidden heart of all his endeavors. And King began to study—and embrace—Royce's most important philosophical concept: the Beloved Community.
Though Royce had first written about the Beloved Community nearly 40 years earlier, King heard it in the context of his own time and place. He heard it in the context of the insidious Jim Crow laws of the South. In 1951 he also heard it in the context of the bitter race realities of the North. The July before King started classes at Harvard, a race riot had erupted in Cicero, Illinois, outside Chicago. A mob of whites attacked an apartment building that housed one black family, that of Harvey Clark Jr., a WW II veteran and bus driver who had moved into the all-white neighborhood.
According to the Chicago Tribune, "In two nights of rioting, some 3,000 persons battled police and National Guardsmen. Twenty-three civilians, police, and Guardsmen were injured and 119 persons arrested." Buildings were burned. Mr. Clark and his family moved away.
If the Beloved Community was to be authentic, King knew, it must not only impel us to action but also carry our suffering. Would it stand up in situations like Cicero or Montgomery or Birmingham?