Washington, D.C. — It was a gloriously beautiful morning in Atlanta, Georgia on September 11, 2001. I saw a glimpse of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s beloved community in his hometown as I attended the first public event of organizations that had joined together to sponsor a breakfast with several hundred Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, and political and community leaders of every color to affirm our joint responsibility to ensure a safe and fit nation and world for all of God’s children. I was moved to tears as the angelic Harmony Children’s Choir, who looked like a little United Nations, sang the anthem of our Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome,” as sweetly and convincingly as I had ever heard.
This taste of heaven and hope on earth was shattered by hate and hell on earth as my friend Andrew Young met me at the door with the news of the terrorists’ planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the unknown whereabouts of President Bush. I gasped aloud in horror at the world spinning out of control so suddenly. Gone forever was our false sense of security and invulnerability that our military and economic might and political rhetoric had embedded into our collective psyches. My deepest initial fear was about the reaction of our leaders and the chance of a catastrophic third world war with nuclear weapons.
After I ran to call family members, my next urgently felt need was to go to Dr. King’s Atlanta gravesite to share the loving, hopeful vision of the morning darkened by the despair and death at the hands of faceless people whose names I did not know. His prophetic warnings raced around my mind: “Our choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.” I wondered what God was teaching us through this unspeakable tragedy. Could it be a chance to bring us closer to our world neighbors, or would it push us further apart? Surely the extraordinary courage, generosity, and sacrifice of so many trapped in or near the World Trade Center renewed our belief in human beings and human kindness. One survivor of the twin towers attack said: “If you had seen what it was like in that stairway, you’d be proud. There was no gender, no race, no religion. It was everyone, unequivocally, helping each other.” It was another unforgettable vision of Dr. King’s beloved community that terrible day in the very epicenter of catastrophe. Imagine what our nation and world could become if we realized and practiced this in less catastrophic times.
Still in a somewhat surreal trance, I went across town to the chapel at Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater, to read the quotations inscribed on his statue in front of the school:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.
Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.
If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.
I read Dr. King’s words aloud in my mind to the faceless terrorists and our own leaders. I also thought about his unflinching call for “a true revolution of values [that] will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death . . . We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops,” and in my mind I substituted the word terrorism for communism.
That day, Dr. King’s words strengthened my resolve to carry on the struggle to build the beloved community amid outer turmoil. In the twenty years since then wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and increasing division, inequality, and hatred at home proved many of his warnings sadly prescient. But in this anniversary year, that same noble, necessary, and hard but achievable vision must still spur us forward.