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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words expressing his dream of love, peace, and justice that could transform a suffering world filled with hate, violence, and injustice became awesomely authentic for me as I did research for a talk I made at our King Day at the Dome 2002 Celebration at the South Carolina State House on January 21. Tears welled in my eyes as Dr. King’s prophetic phrases seemed to speak truth to power – today as much as or even more than when he expressed them in the 1960’s. Sponsored by the NAACP and the Legislative Black Caucus, the annual march and rally was for freedom, unity and economic and social justice and to protest the flying of the Confederate flag in front of the State House.
At our initial King Day at the Dome in January 2000, over 50,000 of us gathered to protest the Confederate flag, then flown atop the State House. Jim Hodges, our flaming “moderate” Democratic Governor, and “moderate” business leaders, emphatically endorsed a legislative “compromise” which moved the flag to a position directly in front of our Capitol later that year. They declared an end to the “flag debate” over Dixie’s most visible symbol of white privilege and racial oppression and division and are highly critical of the NAACP for encouraging a tourism boycott of South Carolina in protest of the racist symbol at the State House.
Poor whites in the South have suffered greatly from inadequate educational and economic opportunity and inferior housing and health care, but they’ve been taught to blame all their problems on African-Americans who are even greater victims of racist division. The “moderate” business leaders and their political minions like Hodges actually benefit from the racial divide between poor and working class blacks and whites. It keeps them from organizing and working together as a labor and/or political force. Alex Sanders, the announced choice of the Democratic establishment for Strom Thurmond’s U.S. Senate seat, is critical of the NAACP’s boycott and tells the media about his membership in the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. The “moderate” Democratic establishment takes the black vote for granted because the “conservative” Republicans are more overt in their appeal to white racial fears.
In my remarks at the rally I quoted Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote, ” I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice: who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
While we were rallying in Columbia, President Bush was escorting Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King and family members in the White House for the unveiling of Dr. King’s portrait there. Bush extolled the memory of the martyred civil rights leader, but conveniently chose to ignore King’s recurrent condemnation of war and militarism. On January 24, Bush announced a 14% increase – $48 billion dollars – in his defense budget, the most since the Reagan Cold War military build-up. The next day Bush announced a proposed doubling of “homeland security” spending to $38 billion to fight a “two front’ war.
On January 24, the Pentagon suspended the transport of prisoners from the war in Afghanistan to the Guantanamo navy base in Cuba after a firestorm of protests from human rights groups and our European allies about the United States’ inhumane treatment of prisoners already “caged” there. The International Committee if the Red Cross said the treatment appeared to violate the Geneva Convention. The catalyst for the criticism were Pentagon photographs in the international media showing bound, shackled prisoners, their heads and eyes covered, kneeling before American soldiers. Dr. King said, “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate, or bow before the alter of retaliation”.
President Bush has said the war against world-wide terrorism could last for years. Given the global proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry, engaging in war becomes sheer lunacy. The U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia (http://www.soaw.org/index.html) has trained terrorists from Latin America for 55 years and the difference between terrorist and freedom fighter throughout the world is largely in the eye of the beholder. Dr. King said the options for humanity are “nonviolence or nonexistence” and if he were alive he would have probably gone to jail along with the two sibling Franciscan nuns who were among those jailed in 2000 for protesting the terrorist school in Georgia.
In 1963, Dr. King said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…The chain of evil-hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars-must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the abyss of annihilation.” In 1967, he said, “man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” We must emulate Dr. King’s non-violent activism to end world hunger, poverty and oppression that are root causes of mortal combat. It’s our best hope to compel the moderates and militarists to heed Dr. King’s words of wisdom and fulfill his dream.
Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and civil rights activist in Columbia, South Carolina. http://www.turnipseed.net