Secular and Spiritual Salvation in 1961 Birmingham, Alabama: Martin Luther King's Beloved Community as Imagined in Vicki Covington's the Last Hotel for Women

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Abstract: This essay examines the ways in which Vicki Covington's 1996 novel The Last Hotel for Women thematizes Martin Luther King, Jr.'s notion of the "Beloved Community," a social and religious ideal that shaped the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The novel is set in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1961, when the Freedom Riders were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan. Covington's thematic concerns overlap with King's in two areas: the desirability of integration, and the end goals of reconciliation and redemption. The novel draws parallels between the social redemption offered by the Movement and the spiritual redemption offered by Christianity.

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Writing about the relationship between fiction and the Civil Rights Movement, Richard H. King argues that "literature offers special insights into key psychological, emotional and experiential aspects of the Movement and its aftermath, which more orthodox--'factual'--accounts sometimes note, but rarely capture adequately" (Ward and Badger 8). King recommends that "one of the best ways to establish a more immediate relation to the civil rights movement, is to pay more attention to the fiction that has explicitly thematised the Movement" (162). One important contemporary work that thematizes the Movement is Vicki Covington's 1996 novel The Last Hotel for Women, which opens in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 14, 1961, when the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Riders were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan at the Trailways bus terminal. (1) This essay will examine the ways in which the novel thematizes Martin Luther King, Jr's notion of the "Beloved Community," a social and religious ideal that shaped the Movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s. First, I will examine the concept of the Beloved Community as it was defined by King. Above all, King based his conception of the Beloved Community on Christian ideals; as King scholars Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr., assert, King's Beloved Community is "the ideal corporate expression of the Christian faith" (120). Then I will analyze the narrative technique Covington employs to evoke the Beloved Community. Specifically, she creates from the shifting points of view of multiple black and white characters an integrated fictional community that begs comparison to King's ideal. A close reading of the novel reveals two areas where Covington's thematic concerns overlap with King's: the desirability of integration, and the end goals of reconciliation and redemption. Like King, Covington conceives of the Beloved Community as a Christian social ideal. In fact, The Last Hotel for Women draws parallels between the social redemption offered by the Civil Rights Movement and the spiritual redemption offered by Christianity.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King often wrote of the "Beloved Community" that would result from peaceful integration. King defined the goals of the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott as "reconciliation"; "redemption"; and "the creation of the beloved community" ("Facing" 140). After forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, King wrote that the new organization's goal was "to foster and create the 'beloved community' in America where brotherhood is a reality.... Our ultimate goal is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living--integration" (This 272). King identified agape, or Christian love for one's neighbor, as a necessary component of the Beloved Community: "Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men.... Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.... Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community" (Stride 104-05). During the Civil Rights Movement, King encouraged African Americans to love their white oppressors: "While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community" (Strength 48). Even as Black Nationalists, most notably Malcolm X, became increasingly vocal about the need for black independence from mainstream, white-defined political, economic, social, and cultural institutions, King continued to affirm the desirability of the Beloved Community. …