“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence I cannot be silent.”
– MLK on Vietnam War April, 1967
It happened again–like it does every year the mainstream media trots out a week worth of documentaries on Dr. Martin Luther King. In this case it was “Words That Changed a Nation” which aired Sunday on CNN. The first 53 minutes of the hour covered the life, times, and words of Dr. Martin Luther King right up until the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Then the last few minutes focused on the last verse of “The Mountaintop” speech and his death. Once again we heard the most about the “I Have a Dream Speech”, once again we heard absolutely nothing about his life from 1964 to 1968, and once again MLK was essentially deemed irrelevant to our present day condition. Of course, there is no getting around or minimizing MLK’s historic and monumental contributions to America during the Civil Rights Movement. However, history and the media have dangerously reduced MLK to a “dreamer” instead a man of action–and more significantly — a man of present day relevance. Ride in the front of the bus. Check. Same water fountains. Check. Voting rights. Check. A black man and a woman are even running for president today. Martin’s dream has been officially realized! Even Hillary has confirmed it.
The reality is that Martin Luther King between 1965-1968 is much more useful and relevant to present-day America. That is the time where he was confronted with more nuanced and insidious injustices that not only existed in the South, but in the North; weren’t just domestic, but global; and pertained not just to race, but class. These issues couldn’t be as easily identified as Bull Conner’s dogs and fire hoses, and their solutions went far beyond the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell explains that history’s retelling of King “makes it impossible both for us to find new leaders and for us to aspire to leadership”. She believes it’s important for Americans in 2008 to remember how disliked King was in 1968. “If we forget that, then it seems like the only people we can get behind must be popular,” “Following King meant following the unpopular road, not the popular one.”
It was the unpopular King, who in that same “Mountaintop Speech” spoke practically and unapologetically about “strengthening black institutions”, “the power of economic withdrawal”, and “redistributing the pain” before ever mentioning his visions of “the promised land”. It was earlier that year that King, demanded government intervention while drumming up support for his planned Poor People’s March forcefully stating “Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.” And it was the prior year in 1967 where King defiantly spoke out against the Vietnam War making it clear for any of those that didn’t previously understand–including many of his very own overruled advisors — that the Civil Rights Movement was always a human rights movement at its core. In doing so, this past Nobel Peace Prize winner jeopardized his popular status by having the audacity to be consistent in his principles of non-violence. And while the mainstream media continues to have amnesia about the anti-war King, these presidential primaries combined with ongoing MLK tributes might be a good a time to refresh our national and political memory.
The following are select excerpts from MLK’s “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” made on April 30, 1967.
· Dissent vs. Disloyalty: “Now, I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal Now, of course, one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told, and I say that those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who opposes the war in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our soldiers is a person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition Yes, we must stand, and we must speak. [tape skip]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.”
· War as the “Demonic, Destructive Suction Tube”: “There isa very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, and new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube. And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only $53 for each person classified as poor, and much of that $53 goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such. Now, I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
· On The “Noble” Media: “Been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They applauded our total movement; they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, we can’t do it this way. They applauded us in the sit-in movementwe non-violently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, Be non-violent toward Bull Connor; when I was saying, Be non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark. There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, Be non-violent toward Jim Clark, but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children. There’s something wrong with that press!”
· On “A Revolution of Values”: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
· On REAL Patriotism: “Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home, America. Omar Khayyam is right: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.’ I call on Washington today. I call on every man and woman of good will all over America today. I call on the young men of America who must make a choice today to take a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”
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