Martin Luther King vs. Walt Disney: Beloved Community in the Age of Entertainment

photo courtesy: Carnegie Mellon University

When Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida on October 1, 1971 — five years after Walt’s untimely death — the energy in the air was electric. Animated characters had come to life, Main Street bustled, the monorail zipped overhead through the atrium of the resort hotel, and Cinderella’s Castle towered over the land and its guests. Walt’s original plans even included an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” a liveable city intended to serve as an incubator for living systems and innovations in technology. This city would be a “living blueprint of the future” and a community in a perpetual “state of becoming.”

According to legend, it is on this day that Roy O. Disney (Walt’s brother) held a press conference to celebrate the occasion. A reporter asked Roy how he was feeling on what must have been such a “bittersweet” day.

Roy was confused. He asked the reporter, “What do you mean? Look at all the smiling faces. This is a day of celebration and revelry. How could today be bittersweet?”

“Well,” the reporter answered, “I understand that it’s sweet because the park is finally open, but isn’t it a shame that Walt isn’t here to see it.”

Roy thought for a moment. He said, “I understand that it’s your job to tell this story and to write and report about what you see here. But if you were a visionary or an innovator, as my brother was, you would understand — Walt did see this. He saw it first. That’s why you get to see it today.”

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In it, he described a dream. A very famous and specific vision of the future. He saw it clearly.

He was able to see black, brown, beige and white kids playing together. He saw black and brown people liberated from segregation and oppression. He saw a light being shown on the fear and hatred and it being eradicated from the face of the Earth. He saw us reaching the mountaintop together and even provided tools for when the journey became difficult. And because he was able to see it and articulate it, it enables us to see it. To feel what that future world would be like.

Today, on the 89th anniversary of his birth, I can’t help but think about the world he described as a kind of Disney Land — a mental theme park, a retreat from reality. I can’t help but think of it as a sprawling and idyllic state of mind, nestled in the swampland of the southern American consciousness.

We’ve had multiple publicly celebrated ribbon cuttings (socially, politically, emotionally and spiritually) where we have announced that we’ve finally arrived at that much-awaited place. Moments when we’ve won voting rights for all Americans or defeated Jim Crow laws or elected the first black president. Only to discover that this place is perpetually under construction with new rooms and attractions being added at every turn.

And so, we find ourselves with the fantastic new “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” perched atop a hill with all of its magic and holograms and technological wonders and fire-breathing dragons. But, at the same time — existing in parallel, just down the road a piece — we still have the same old animatronic, cardboard cut-out, cartoonish representation of diversity and multiculturalism found on the “It’s a Small World” boat ride.

The problem is not that these two distinct worlds exist, it’s that they never meet. The new rarely informs the old, and the old rarely becomes new again. The problem is that we keep thinking we can out-innovate either our reality or our lack of vision.

The reality that Dr. King saw – a fully mature, integrated, synthesized, actualized society – exists only in the hearts of those who believe in this vision. It exists as a potentiality for those who have inherited his dream. It exists like a torch that has been passed down from generation to generation, and those of us who keep the embers glowing do so despite the winds of ignorance and the torrential downpour of hatred and violence. We keep it burning because we have faith that one day everyone will be consumed by this burning sense of compassion — that one day it will set the entire world aflame with love.

But this is not a reality shared by everyone. And that is our challenge on this day.

Everyone of us exists along a spectrum of consciousness — politically, economically, emotionally and spiritually. Some of us are beset by pain and suffering. Some are chained and bound by oppression (whether it be personal, cultural or institutional). Some are sitting on the fencepost of the status quo (swinging our feet back and forth and whistling that everything is fine). Some of us are in a position of privilege and protected by that very fenceline, feeling very removed from those who are suffering or oppressed, staring over the barrier wondering, “What can I do?” And a few of us are in the catbird seat of power — resting in the parapet of Harry Potter’s castle, or riding our fire-breathing dragon and looking down on the cardboard cutouts of cultural diversity below us.

We’ve got to find a way to bring this human spectrum into harmony. Just as we would bring our biological systems (immune, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular) into balance or we would seek to align the energetic centers (meridians or chakras) within our own body, we must also integrate and synthesize the politically and philosophically charged centers within our society. We need to have healthy exchanges of energy and ideas that flow through well-defined (yet porous and supple) ideological walls, otherwise our system will experience blockages, breakdowns, illness and disease.

And so, in a way, we need to give our pain and suffering the strength to talk to our oppression, and give our oppression the courage to approach the status quo, and give the status quo a reason to talk to our privilege, and give our privilege the tools to speak directly to power.

If you are suffering or oppressed and cannot ask for help — or if you’ve been asking and have been repeatedly and systematically ignored — we are sending strength to you today.

If you are privileged enough to have the luxury of extra time or technology or resources — today you can start donating it to a worthy cause.

If you are in a position of power and don’t know how to use it — use it to heal, use it to build, use it to connect people. Start using it today.

In his book, Where Do We Go From Here, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about white Americans rushing to the aid of what he called the “American Negro” when they were attacked or victimized. He also wrote that when the attackers retreated the white American would follow suit. He neglected to help his black brother or sister to their feet or to give them cover. Instead, feeling that their job was done, he would abandon them just as their attacker had abandoned them, leaving them lying in the street to nurse their wounds alone.

Today, take a moment to consider where you are on this spectrum and ask yourself, “What might I do (today and tomorrow) from exactly where I am? What might I do to connect the dots and bring this society into harmony — to pass the torch to those who haven’t yet seen the light or felt the warmth of community? How do I convince another that this community of the future is a world worth living in? How do I prove to them that it’s a reality worth sharing with generations to come? What words can I use? What actions can I take? What ballot can I cast? What business can I start? What organizations can I support that are working to build what Dr. King called the “beloved community?”

Ask yourself how you might summon the strength, or the courage, or reason, or the tools to create change in yourself or in the hearts of others, bringing balance to our human continuum. Ask yourself if signing a petition or sharing a video on Facebook is really all that you can do. How might you communicate or behave differently today and tomorrow? How might you forgive or provide cover to your neighbor? How might you non-violently organize or resist? How much more love can you give when you think you’ve run out?

Today, as we do every year, we celebrate this gradual expansion of our vision for the future and continue to share these blueprints with the world. Today I have faith that our beloved community is in a perpetual state of becoming.

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Prepared for the 2018 MLK Interfaith Memorial Service, Interfaith Tampa Bay

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