On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus. Martin Luther King, Jr. was 26 years old; Coretta had just given birth to their first child.
E D. Dixon, another Montgomery pastor, asked to host a meeting in King’s Dexter Street Baptist Church—not because of King, but because the church was the closest to downtown–across from the capitol. King attended the poorly planned meeting, was reluctantly drawn in, and his greatness began to emerge. It wasn’t necessarily the perfect time for him–he was young, with a new family, not much money or a lot of experience.
He even, at a critical point in his life, hesitated. On our Unitarian Universalist Living Legacy Pilgrimage this past fall, we sat at the very table in his Kitchen where he sat, uncertain of himself, discouraged, and frightened for his family by all the threatening calls they had received. He almost called it quits that night. In the middle of his doubts, he had his “Kitchen Epiphany” when he faced down his fears with the conviction that God stands by those who stand for justice. The world doesn’t need a perfect person to do what he did. The world needed him. And this week we celebrate the 84th birthday of this leader of nonviolent protest, freedom fighter and hero in the struggle for civil rights and racial justice.
He led waves of ordinary, courageous people on the streets of the South from the bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, voter registrations drives, to the Freedom rides.
In the face of overwhelming odds, King knew those ordinary people needed a dream like all people do – one that speaks to our spirits through both our heads and our hearts. And because he knew that, on August 28, 1963, he stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington before 125,000 people and delivered one of the most well known and quoted speeches ever made and maybe the greatest.
”I have a Dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
But Dr. King had other dreams.
We forget that King had a dream beyond racial justice. He also believed that we can overcome war itself, as he hinted at in Oslo in 1964 and later. He dreamed that man would find an alternative to war and violence between nations just as he was finding a way to put an end to racial injustice. The madness must cease.
President Obama, in his Nobel Prize speech, expressed the view that we’re stuck with war and there’s nothing we can do about it, indeed that it is often justified. Dr. King in his Nobel speech made it clear that he believed our destiny is ours to choose. “World peace through non-violent means is neither absurd nor unattainable”, he said. He knew—as we UU’s know “that we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality and whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” He tells us that we must either “learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”
He became more and more convinced that he had to speak out strongly against the war on Vietnam and so in 1967 and ‘68 he did. He delivered his most famous antiwar speech “Beyond Vietnam” at Manhattan’s Riverside Church exactly one year before he died. It’s hard to understand just how radical it was at the time. His closest advisors tried to talk him out of it because they felt it would dilute his civil rights work. It would alienate President Johnson who was a civil rights supporter, but also pursuing the war. And it did. He would be labeled unpatriotic for his criticism of America’s foreign policy. But he felt that ending discrimination in America and ending the massacre in Vietnam were not separate. As a man of conscience, a man of compassion, he had to speak. And he paid the price for speaking out. All the major media backed the War. He was regularly attacked in national newspapers. The New York Times wrote editorials against him. Many of his supporters turned against him. He was called a traitor and a commie.
He was attacked for many of the same reason we peace activists who oppose the wars in Iraq, Pakistan Afghanistan, and all our military actions around the world, are attacked today and his answers to them were a lot the same as ours are.
First he connected the war with racism and the struggle for equality. Far more black men were sent to fight and die than their white brothers, who had the financial means and connections to escape the draft. Young black men denied equal rights in our society were going off to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia. Today, in our voluntary military, there is an economic draft, where those same young black men–faced with lack of jobs and few opportunities–are forced to join the military to survive.
King was not limited by a narrow nationalistic view, by the idea of our country, right or wrong. He thought of himself as a world citizen. His dedication was not limited to the needs of African-Americans or the cause of civil rights. He was dedicated not just to save the soul of America but to work for the betterment of all, the brotherhood of man. He felt a special need to speak out against our militaristic nature. It was impossible to preach non-violence to young angry black men until he had spoken clearly to the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world of his day”—his own country.
He spoke of the collateral damage of the war and of the suffering of the people we claimed to be liberating—not the soldiers on each side, or the military government, but of the civilians, people who had been under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades. Even for those we came to support, “we poisoned their water, killed their crops, destroyed their families, their villages” and often brought death. And in today’s wars waged by our country, the collateral damage continues to grow. In World War I there was one civilian killed for every 10 soldiers on both sides. Nowadays it’s just the opposite. With the technological advances in killing tools, there are at least 5 innocent civilians killed for every one soldier.
And what about the wars’ effects on our own people? Then as now, “This business of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.”
His strongest response to his critics about his opposition to the war was economic and I agree with that today. He said “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” When Judy and I feed the homeless in the park every Sunday with Food Not Bombs, we set up our sign. On one side is our logo, on the other, General Eisenhower’s words.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
Today the military represents 55% of our discretionary budget. The Afghan war alone costs us $2 billion a week. And the arms manufacturers and war mongers are selling weapons to both sides, getting rich off the blood of our young people. Those who will stand up and speak out fearlessly against such insanity today are needed now more than ever.
At the end of his life, King was consumed with his dream of ending poverty. He spoke about it as early as 1964 in his Nobel Prize Lecture, but by 1968, he was speaking out strongly about the interrelatedness of racism, war and poverty. He was truly on dangerous ground. He expanded his vision from working to achieve equal rights for African Americans and peacemaking, to bringing an end to systemic poverty and seeking economic justice for all. Before, he was trying to change the way people in and out of power thought about race and war; now he was trying to change the way people in and out of power thought about power.
On the day of his death he was in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers’ strike—for fair wages and decent working conditions. On the agenda was the Poor People’s Campaign, a plan to bring thousands of the poor of all races on another march to Washington to demand jobs and, most radical of all, not just a living wage, but a guaranteed income for all. In 1968 he understood economic exploitation and his dream was to end it.
Throughout his life King faced the three great evils of mankind—racism, war, and poverty. His dream was to overcome all three. The night before he died King delivered his last great speech of hope, assuring his followers that his dreams would not die. If they, like us today, would continue to pursue those dreams, he knew that someday we would get to the promised land.
Tom and Judy Turnipseed live in South Carolina. They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org