Dr. King's Vision and Values

We gather today to honor one of America's greatest moral leaders by taking his life and work seriously. King's life and legacy provide much for our reflection on who moral leaders are, what they do, and the outcomes they enable. Moral leaders are women and men who act with integrity and imagination to serve the common good while striving to make people better. This includes but is not limited to clergy. Becoming a moral agent, one who lives in accord with deeply held ethical principles and moral values, is hard work. The Greeks said the moral life is an agon, a daily struggle or contest. But to aspire to moral leadership—a small leap beyond moral agency—is a more audacious enterprise.

King was animated by a vision, and we should understand our responsibility for implementing his vision. He was also driven by a framework of values. His vision and values placed him at an historical crossroad where he would provide the moral leadership America required to align her reality with her noble democratic rhetoric. King elaborates on his vision in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In the last chapter, “The World House,” he writes:

“Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.’ This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”

He goes on to describe people and life as “interdependent” and “interrelated.” In the 13 short years that marked his public ministry, these were the animating vision and the innervating values that drove him forward.

King’s vision of interdependence has been creatively reformulated for our digital age in an exercise called “100 People: A World Portrait.” It considers how a village of 100 people would be composed if the existing human ratios of the earth’s population were applied. With this methodology, there would be 60 Asians, 15 Africans, 14 people from the Americas, and 11 Europeans.  There would be 33 Christians, 22 Muslims, 14 Hindus, 7 Buddhists, 12 people who practice another religion, and 12 people not aligned with any religion. 83 would be able to read and write, but 17 people would not. Only 7 would have a college degree, while 23 would not have shelter and 13 would have no clean water to drink.

This is a portrait of stunning diversity and difference that invites an inclusive, generous, respectful narrative capable of moving forward in peace. King’s metaphor of the world house offers that. It is a vision that can implement components of human cooperation and understanding. As his vision lingers in the mind, let us turn now to the reality of this hour.

Our Current Reality: A Threat to Justice Everywhere

The events of recent months and years have exposed the danger of a society wanting for a vision of interdependence and a narrative of equal justice for all. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and others demonstrate that unarmed men of color face an unacceptably high risk of being killed by a small number of law enforcement officers who regard them through the lens of fear and prejudice, complicated by situation-specific poor judgment. But it is important to understand that these high profile cases have exposed more than the history of bad police-community relations. They also expose a wider disturbing divide.

In December, CNN reported on racial differences in how Americans view police and the criminal justice system. According to their poll, 57 percent of white Americans think none or almost none of their area police are prejudiced against blacks, while only 25 percent of non-white Americans had that perception. White Americans were also much more likely to believe that the criminal justice system treats blacks fairly—50 percent felt that way, compared to 21 percent of non-whites polled.

These divergent perceptions are rooted in very different everyday experiences and perceptions of race, class difference, and the functions of law enforcement. People serving on grand juries who see police only as benevolent figures are not likely to indict them in complicated cases. Whenever a close call must be made, law enforcement will always get the benefit of the doubt. As a society, we need to reckon with these potentially lethal assumptions.

Time will not allow a full unpacking of the implications of these varying perceptions, but I do want to draw your attention to the historical and legal realities that inform these views. In October 2014, the Economic Policy Institute released a report by Richard Rothstein, the subtitle of which could serve as the theme for the evolution of urban America's racial polarization during the past century. The title of the article is: “The Making of Ferguson,” but the subtitle is “Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles.”

Rothstein notes that while racial prejudices have led to the creation of white and black neighborhoods, influential and intentional policies developed by government officials and business leaders were also responsible for the residential segregation that has been the status quo in urban and small town America. Rothstein’s list of the offending policies includes actions such as zoning decisions, restrictive covenants, government subsidies that favored white developments, lack of municipal services in poorer neighborhoods, and annexation and incorporation initiatives, all of which served to keep the races separate.

I am personally intrigued and disturbed by these patterns of residential segregation because my family lived in this narrative. Our first home was in an all-black community on Chicago’s South Side. Just before I came to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College, my family became the second black family to move to Mount Vernon, formerly an all-white neighborhood. We enjoyed good relationships with our neighbors, but we witnessed family after family move out of their homes at night, never to be seen again. Friendships ruptured, but more importantly, integrated communities that might have thrived were quickly abandoned.

Residential segregation was not solely responsible for isolating ghettos. Racial discrimination in labor, jobs, and economic policies meant that blacks were excluded systematically from opportunities to improve their economic conditions. By paying their taxes, they helped to finance publicly supported measures that benefited their white counterparts, subsidizing their own exclusion.

It is important, however, to remember that black people were not helpless victims in this unfolding narrative of state-sponsored exclusion. They established their own banks, credit unions, entrepreneurial activities, and vast businesses. Black business districts thrived in places like Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta. Black colleges like Morehouse and Spelman helped attract a national cadre of talented young people. Black churches supported entrepreneurial and social justice activism.

In addition to residential and labor segregation, law enforcement is part of the narrative. Many scholars and activists have commented on how law enforcement was deployed not simply to serve and protect local citizens, but also to patrol and protect color lines and class boundaries. Police became virtual guards on the border to prevent unwanted spatial transgression by blacks, especially young black males.

As we engage in community empowerment and social ministry, we should think about the political, social, and economic histories of our churches and neighborhoods. We should allow that knowledge, the knowledge of the current reality, and Dr. King’s vision of interdependence to inform our opportunities for moral leadership. An example from Rothstein’s report made me smile and gave me hope of the way forward.

In 1968, the same year my family moved to Mount Vernon, Larman and Geraldine Williams bought a home in Ferguson, Missouri, becoming one of the first black families to do so. They had been living in a St. Louis ghetto, and thought that Ferguson would provide a better education and less violence for their daughters. But the path to homeownership in Ferguson wasn’t easy—the real estate agent refused to show the Williams family a house that was on the market. The family belonged to a church with a white pastor, who called the agent; the agent told the pastor that the neighbors objected to a black buyer. The pastor held a prayer meeting for the neighborhood, and the neighbors agreed to allow the Williams family to purchase the home. 

One white pastor, one lone and courageous pastor, helped open the door for this family and broke the silence of the faith community. Amidst the tragic color narratives, there have been, are now, and must continue to be moral leaders who transgress the racial religious boundaries, who break the silence, and act with integrity and imagination for justice and inclusion.

The Way Forward

Going forward, I see three zones of moral action that people of faith must engage simultaneously. First, the zone of community-police relations. Moral leaders must step into places where there is mistrust and fear with visions and values of interdependence, respect, and hope. We must have difficult public conversations about repairing poor community-police relations through changes in policy, greater diversity in personnel, and by holding law enforcement accountable for professional behavior, particularly in communities of color.

Second, alongside the public work of improving police-community interactions is the unglamorous homework of providing care, discipline, and moral education for our young people. That is the responsibility of the village elders, anchor institutions, families, schools, congregations, and community organizations. Harvard developmental psychologist Erik Erikson said that as elders enter the latter phases of the life cycle, their purpose and their great opportunity is to prepare the next generation for the world.

Part of that learning agenda—perhaps the hardest part—will be the psycho-social-spiritual and political work in our ethnic and economic enclaves. Whites must grapple with white privilege and myths of supremacy, a benefit not requested or earned but merely conferred by social systems and codes with deep roots in a racist past. One does not have to choose to be prejudiced; like fries in a Happy Meal, it comes along with the package. Know the history, know your location in the narrative, and above all, know how you can transcend and transform the narrative.

Blacks must wrestle with the tortuous memories, legacies, policies, and social demons of the past. These demons assume many forms, including a sense of victimization that promotes self-pity, stagnation, and self-destruction. Blacks must avoid the traps of internalized oppression and self-hatred.

Those who are Asian, Hispanic, and others who are neither black nor white must understand that they are part of this interconnected network of destiny. No one gets a pass or can stand outside of history. You are in this narrative. Instead of being assigned a part, be an agent and define the part you will play.

In all of our communities, our young people desperately need to know how to live together in a diverse world. Teach them their responsibilities as well as their rights. Teach them to respect and accept—not merely tolerate—people who are different.

Teach them the art of civility and manners. Teach them to work, to love, to forgive, and to reconcile. This is parental work of care and discipline, but it is too important to leave to parents alone. We have done that and reaped tragic consequences. Nor can a government or the market teach them what they need to survive in this new world. If the village elders do not fill the void, the village idiots will. 

As police-community relations are sorted out, and as each of our households, neighborhoods, and houses of worship work on socializing our youth for the 21st century, the third zone calls us all out of our ethnic and economic enclaves to the demanding work of reforming and reengineering our institutions, policies, and practices through multi-racial, interfaith coalition-building. Moral leaders do not remain in their zip codes or comfort zones, they venture, they push boundaries, and they explore and pioneer new relationships for the common good. We must work together to ensure greater inclusiveness and equity in our institutions. Those who have been excluded or barely visible in the past must be welcomed at the table, including women, people of color, and those from other faith traditions.

Organizational management experts Julie O’Mara and Alan Richter provide some guidance in how to change these institutions. Working with a vast group of other scholars, diversity experts, and change managers, they have defined diversity as “the variety of differences and similarities/dimensions among people, such as gender, race/ethnicity, tribal/indigenous origin, age, culture, generation, religion, class/caste, language, education, geography, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, work style, work experience, job role and function, thinking style, and personality type.”

This expansive understanding of the concept of diversity is helpful. Achieving basic inclusiveness where diverse segments of the community are welcome at the table will be a huge moral achievement, but it is not enough. The next step—recall King’s vision—is to demonstrate our ethical commitment to inclusion by institutionalizing the world house. How will we know we are achieving this? O’Mara and Richter present benchmarks that institutions can strive to meet. According to their guidelines, we will be on the way when diversity and inclusion aren’t isolated initiatives, but a true, embedded factor in growth and success. We will be on the right path when everyone in an institution demonstrates a belief that inclusivity is a key to success. We will be heading the right direction when we can credit our accomplishments to our work becoming more inclusive. And as we continue on the path, we must continually review our vision, initiatives, and goals to ensure that we are doing all we can to achieve inclusion.


There is an alternative to our status quo. There is another script we can consult as we navigate the difficult waters surrounding us. It begins with forgiveness. As Desmond Tutu said, “without forgiveness there is no future.”

We live in a cynical time. We see evidence of leaders who no longer pretend to have a responsibility for the common good. But we are still capable of being moved by the presence and power of moral leaders, leaders like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Pope Francis. They invite us to reflect on what moral leaders must do and to accept our own mantles of leadership and moral agency.

The time to assume this mantle of moral leadership is now. As the medieval rabbi Maimonides reminds us: “The world is equally balanced between good and evil; your next act will tip the scale.”


This is a condensed version of Dr. Franklin’s lecture. To view the full lecture, visit vimeo.com/candler.

CREDITS: Top image: Lisa Stone; Panorama:Claire Asbury Lennox; Collage, L-R: Bryan Meltz/EPV; Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP; aerial view: Bryan Meltz/EPV.