“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.”
Those prescient words are as old as I am. They were first uttered 35 years ago by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King. What is more striking about them? Is it the fact that one could seamlessly substitute Iraq for Vietnam and have the words continue to ring true? Or is it the chasm that separates the ideas expressed through those timeless words from the simplistic blandishments so closely associated with the MLK of our collective popular mythology? I vote for the latter.
If I hear, “I have a Dream…” just one more time…
As we mark (and some of us celebrate) Martin Luther King Day, it’s as if the man’s substance has been boiled off, evaporating over time, leaving us with only the sticky, sugary residue of a Dream. It’s almost devoid of nutrition now, but serves well to sweeten the coarse gruel of lies we’re fed on a daily basis by the same people that Martin gave his life in opposing.
The 1963 March On Washington, the backdrop for Dr. King’s most indelible oratory, is certainly one of the most significant events in American history. It is an incandescent moment in our national past, fully deserving of eternal remembrance. However, this clarion call for racial harmony and an end to American apartheid did not mark the be-all and end-all of King’s contribution. As courageous as MLK and others in the civil rights movement were in standing up to America’s throngs of openly racist, hostile and regressive zealots, he nonetheless did so while eliciting and enjoying admiration from a sizeable segment of the populace. They applauded his noble efforts, nodded approvingly in assent to both his aims of desegregation and nonviolent tactics. His Nobel Peace Prize was lauded as further confirmation of his iconic status as a “Civil Rights Leader.”
And yet, in the last months of his life, one can argue that King exhibited even more fortitude as he continued his transition from Civil Rights Leader to Human Rights Leader. Condemning white sheets and burning crosses is one thing (witness the recent bloodletting of Trent Lott), but open and unabashed criticism of our nation’s imperial policies? Voicing public opposition to the un-elected monied interests who comprise our shadow government? King’s efforts to champion the dignity of the poor and working class in America, and to show compassion for those on the receiving end of our military might were greeted as warmly as if he had trampled an apple pie wrapped up in the flag during the middle of a baseball game. Time magazine denounced his “Beyond Vietnam” speech (from which the opening quote was taken) as “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”
If this vilification of the late-’60s, pre-assassination King is hard for us to imagine now, it’s because of all the soft-focused industrial light and magic that historical revisionists have brought to bear upon his legacy. Martin Luther King’s opposition to the Vietnam war has since been reduced to “merely” the result of Christian pacifism–a general disdain for violence of any sort–the kind of personal, principled position that the architects of war can blithely dismiss as irrelevant to the workings of the real world, where warriors must exist to make the world safe for the peaceniks.
But a re-read of King’s speeches and writings prior to his death indicate far more than “just” a general opposition to that war:
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
He clearly came to realize that the bombs we dropped halfway around the world were exploding in the streets of America, and that divine laws of reciprocity would ensure that our national failure to be a force for international justice would surely result in eventual domestic damnation.
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, fledgling nations, having thrown off the yoke of colonialism and exhilarated with the possibilities of a self-determined future, adopted and appropriated huge chunks of the United States’ Constitution. But they failed to read the fine print on the original–life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness available to citizens of the United States and its territories meeting certain income and credit qualifications; freedom, justice and equality available while supplies last, at limited locations; this offer void where prohibited by potential profits.
… it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.
Dr. King could very well have devoted a lifetime of working only to dismantle the machinery of institutionalized racism and oppression in this country–there’s enough meat on that bone to feed an army of activists even today, decades later. King’s conscience and faith demanded, however, that his compassion, his commitment, his advocacy extend to all humans, even our supposed “enemies.” This, in turn, led him to the gradual realization that “America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” In keeping with the words of Jesus, who instructs in The Book of Matthew that “Inasmuch as you have done unto the least of these, my brethren, you have done unto me,” King came to understand that it was as important to try and prevent our government from blowing up a child in Vietnam as it was to feed a child in the United States. Doing so required that he emulate Christ further, by speaking the truth without regard for popularity or consequence.
After all, the real “transgression” of Jesus in the eyes of the Pharisees and Sad’ducees (the Jewish orthodoxy of biblical times), was that his teachings exposed their hypocrisy, essentially removing them from their privileged positions as intermediaries between the people and their God. So they called him a blasphemer. Dr. King dared to speak in opposition to the U.S. government, the power structure of his (and our) time, calling into serious question their motives, their morals, and ultimately, the God-like absolute authority they had given themselves over the peoples of the world. To directly challenge our bellicose and vengeful demi-gods of war and profit is beyond treason in their eyes, it is blasphemy, punishable by death. One wonders if the date of King’s assassination, exactly a year to the day following the delivery of his seminal “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence” speech, was purely coincidental.
Regardless, his warnings went unheeded and we continued, as a nation, to be on the wrong side of a worldwide revolution. Even as our domestic agenda has oscillated from half-hearted help, to benign neglect to outright hostility toward the needy and powerless, this past 35 years has seen us lend international support to the most vile dictatorships and thugocracies, suppress the expansion of economic and human rights, and retain our position as the number one arms supplier and possessor of most “weapons of mass destruction” on the planet.
With no longer even a credible threat from the former Soviet Union to serve as pretext for our unchallenged and unparalleled military might (remember the peace dividend, anyone?), we remain committed, it seems, to the manufacture of new enemies. Without even the flimsiest of pretexts, we stand at the ready, yet again, to dispatch our troops to Iraq to wage a war that, like Vietnam, is indefensible on multiple grounds.
Not a shred of evidence links this campaign to our ill-defined, yet fully funded “War On Terror.” The most shrill cheerleaders for this adventure are from an administration composed of Vietnam War draft “dodgers” (rather than “conscientiously object” to that unjust war, these men, including the president, vice president and deputy defense secretary received draft deferments and preferential non-combatant assignments that kept them from seeing the action to which they’re so eager to subject today’s young men and women, even as they ignore advice from “real” military personnel who have urged caution and restraint). While people are out of work on the homefront, we can’t wait to spend billions of dollars on the war, as well as on long-term post-war occupation/stabilization forces. While some of our veterans are denied the free health care they were promised in return for the arms and legs they left on the battlefield, we’re getting ready to give the ol’ economy another boost by once again saying “no thanks” to tax money from our wealthiest citizens.
Perhaps we could remember MLK differently this year. Instead of settling for celebrating the Dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, we should, in word and deed, celebrate his reality. By following in his footsteps, we honor his legacy and affirm our brotherhood and sisterhood in the human family, as did the recently departed Father Phillip Berrigan, longtime activist and founder of Plowshares For Peace, who died in December, after many, many years of social activism. If we follow their example, perhaps in another 35 years, Dr. King’s speeches and writings will be more appropriate for the history books than for the newsstands.