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Chaos or Civility?

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King Jr. was written during the heights of the Civil Rights era and is one of my favorite works. Personally, I don't think this gem gets the attention it truly deserves. Many of the themes King addresses are timeless, philosophically rich, and much too important to the issues of race, class, community relations, and society's overall response to poverty to limit and confine it to the Civil Rights era exclusively. Just as King's prescient work sought to provide healing and direction to America during very turbulent times, Chaos or Community speaks to 21st century America and the incivility we are witnessing from the public square to debates about public policy.

With rising poverty, accelerating racial conflict, war, protests, and volatile police-community relations, society was unraveling despite the presence of strong and established social institutions like the family and church. Without question, society was heavily influenced by the role each played in the creation and promotion of norms and values in the community. This was especially true for the Black community, where faith, patriarchy, and matriarchy were the primary conduits for stability, responsibility, and the prevailing community ethos at all levels.

Chaos or Community unapologetically targets poverty and systemic white racism as the primary causes for social and economic instability. From voting rights to economic opportunity, justice and equality were the required goals to undo the damage in order to move society forward. Ultimately, for King, the Federal Government had an inherent moral duty to intervene on behalf of the American Negro because change would not occur without the full might and authority of the government.

The chaos captured in the title was not limited to the above conditions. The Black Power Movement rose to prominence as its signature chant began to echo louder and louder from the ghettos in Watts to Washington, DC's Capitol Hill and all throughout the south. Yes, these two words rallied a dispirited and disempowered people to a renewed sense of power, force, resourcefulness, assertiveness, and collective self-defense. King acknowledged this, but he had his reservations about what the semantics of Black Power would do to the unity of Civil Rights Movement, both philosophically and demographically. As King stated earlier, Black Power was a "slogan without a program" and later he goes on to say the following...

"Like life, racial understanding is not something that we find but something that we must create. What we find when we enter those mortal plains is existence, but existence is the raw material out of which all life must be created. A productive and happy life is not something that you find: it is something that you make. And so the ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready made; it must be created by the fact of contact."

The statement above was expressed in opposition to the idea that whites would not be permitted to participate in an upcoming march. True to colorblind principles, King remained adamant in his defense for interracial marches.

Consciences must be enlisted in our movement, I said, not merely racial groups. I reminded them of the dedicated whites who suffered, bled and died in the cause of racial justice and suggested that to reject white participation now would be a shameful repudiation of all for which they had sacrificed.

Finally, I said that the formidable foe we now faced demanded more unity than ever before and that I would stretch every point to maintain this unity, but that I could not in good conscience agree to continue my personal involvement and that of SCLC in the march if it were not publicly affirmed that it was based on nonviolence and the participation of both black and white.

Over fifty years later, Harvard Law Professor Dr. Noah Feldman gave a speech to George Washington University business students at the fourth annual Richard W. Blackburn Endowed Lecture on Civility and Integrity. One of the major takeaways from his speech was the statement, “Our entire capacity as a republic now depends, in a genuinely future-oriented way, on whether we are, in fact, truly capable of continuing the process of civic engagement, civil conversation, even at a moment when the country is deeply polarized.”

Just as King stressed civil civic engagement in both word and deed in his 1967 classic, Feldman shares similarly during his 2017 lecture on civility and integrity and at a time when racial, social, and political tension are on the rise.

From King to Feldman, civility and integrity are core requirements for successful civic engagement. King would not compromise these principles even when confronted with competing ideals like "Black Power". Unity, community, and interracial cooperation were too important to surrender to the internal pressures of "Black Power" and the external threat from whites, particularly white southern racists, who'd be quick to expose the Civil Rights Movement for being hypocritical and incapable of practicing what it preaches.

Civility and integrity are mutually inclusive of one another and are best applied and understood together to truly promote human flourishing in the complexity of today's sociopolitical world. Like King and Feldman, our leaders today must be uncompromising, outspoken, and principled if they are to represent the virtues and values of civility and integrity in order to move us far away from self-inflicted chaos and closer to the thriving civil community that we all want today and for a better tomorrow.

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