Martin Luther King III challenged Brigham Young University students Tuesday to rise up and become citizens of the beloved community envisioned by his father.
They replied with a rousing standing ovation.
“Your leadership is urgently needed to guide our world to a greater destiny,” King said, his voice building near the end of a stirring forum address at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah.
“Rise up and take a stand against poverty, racism, war and violence,” he said speaking in front of an image of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. “Rise up with an unwavering determination to reclaim our environment from the ravages of industrial pollution. Rise up and lead nonviolent movements to feed the hungry. Rise up and use your economic power to support a culture of nonviolence. Rise up and work for peace, dignity and human rights for all people in every nation.”
The standing ovation that followed was repeated when King left BYU’s new, circular speaker’s stage. About two dozen Black students stood by their seats at the foot of the stage with their right fists raised in the air.
“It was a message of solidarity. There are not a lot of Black students at BYU,” said Nate Byrd, co-president of the Black Student Union and a psychology major from Canton, Michigan. “It was also a salute to him and his father, so it was a moment of respect and solidarity.”
King was the first speaker in BYU’s 2021-22 forum series on “Creating a Beloved Community” at a time when the university administration is addressing racism and building a new Office of Belonging.
An estimated 7,291 people attended the speech, according to the Marriott Center Special Events staff.
“I call you to embrace a bold and daring spirit of compassion and caring that reaches out to help the poor and oppressed, the disadvantaged, downtrodden and broken-hearted people of our communities,” King said.
He also called them to become champions of civil rights and human rights.
Many of his themes were familiar to BYU students, most of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
All people are children of God
He sounded a theme repeatedly emphasized by church leaders, that all people are children of God.
“To begin building the beloved community, we must embrace the belief that, ultimately, we are all brothers and sisters in the great human family,” King said. “It means working together to create communities which have no barriers between black, white, red, brown and yellow. We are all members of the same family because we are all children of the same God.”
Students, faculty, staff and members of the public applauded when King said a higher type of love is the essential foundation of the beloved community.
“Our challenge today is to embrace unconditional love and declare ourselves citizens of the beloved community,” he said. “We must affirm the sisterhood and brotherhood of all people — every race, every ethnic group, every religion, young and old, women and men, gay and lesbian, people with disabilities — every person.”
A shared view of a greater love
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began to speak 65 years ago about a beloved community, a place where all people live in peace and harmony and work to help others. For a dozen years, he used the Greek word agape to describe the type of love required for that community. Latter-day Saint leaders like President Russell M. Nelson at BYU in 1995 and others have taught agape repeatedly.
“Those who learn how to express love in creative ways are the healers and leaders who blaze the trail forward to the beloved community,” King III said during Tuesday’s forum.
In his father’s dream, that community does not tolerate poverty, hunger and homelessness “because standards of human decency will not allow it,” he said. “Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirt of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
Citizens of the beloved community stand up against bullying, corruption, exploitation and war and stand up for peace, justice and reconciliation. Such a community provided decent jobs, decent homes, quality education, justice and health care. It also requires interracial cooperation and creative altruism, creative activism and creative leadership.
“Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred,” King said.
Tuesday also was National Voter Registration Day, and King’s call for support for voting rights drew applause.
Service as a healing force for reconciliation
He called service a spiritual obligation and the highest form of leadership.
“Service is a powerful healing force that builds bridges of hope, trust and kindness over gulfs of alienation and distrust,” King said. “It is a potent force for transformation because it establishes a connection between the server and those who are served.”
The audience applauded when he quoted one of his father’s speeches about service.
“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve,” the Rev. King said. “You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love and you can be that servant.”
Black BYU student reactions
Byrd, the Black Student Union co-president, sat in the front row on the floor of the arena with his big gray backpack, which bore a patch that said, “I can’t breath.” He asked King during the question-and-answer session after the forum how to balance his desire to love with his anger at the slowness of change.
“The fact you are at BYU as a Black man and most of the students are white people shows you are already doing it,” King said. BYU is 81% white and 1% Black.
King counseled Byrd to fortify himself with prayer, meditation, fasting and edifying readings. He validated Byrd’s anger and said his own father often was frustrated and angry but always strove to speak and lead with nonviolence. He also encouraged Byrd to work with a group of others and count their accomplishments, however small.
King called his father’s philosophy of nonviolence a powerful tool for leaders who want to build a beloved community, noting that he used it to “win all of the victories of the American civil rights movement.”
But he also said nonviolence is “a powerful tool for revolutionary personal transformation,” because it provides a greater sense of wholeness and meaning and an advantage in dealing with conflicts and disputes. It empowers people to become leaders and “a force for justice and peace and human rights.”
Byrd said it was a special feeling to have King at BYU.
“I could definitely see glimpses of his dad in him,” Byrd said. “It was good to see someone who looks like us on that stage.”
Other Black students were grateful, too.
“Being in front was really special,” said Tendela Tellas, Byrd’s co-president with the Black Student Union and a global studies and anthropology major from Indianapolis, Indiana. “We could focus on him. For 50 minutes, he was in charge and everyone was listening, even the white people.”
Tellas and other students also relished the opportunity to raise their fists.
“To have that moment of solidarity, to be seen for those few seconds felt good,” she said.
They also left with a desire to act, said Joshua Beacham, an experience design and management major from Tomball, Texas.
“We’re willing to take on the task of becoming the new leaders he talked about.”
King’s forum address can be viewed at BYUtv.org.