Monday, January 16, 2006
There is a much greater depth to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s character and commitments than you will be hearding about on the morning news shows' obligatory segments today. King understood that a commitment to the civil rights of blacks in America was also a commitment to the poor, and not just in the United States, but the poor throughout the world.
You probably won't hear anything about his opposition to the war in Vietnam, nor to his signalling of non-violent resistance and trusting one's enemies as the way to achieve peace.
Here is a sermon he gave at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967 in which he states that the struggle to end the war in Vietnm is in united purpose with and inescapable from his fight for civil rights in the United States. Go read the whole thing. Link.
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 the 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. In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church-the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate-leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.When I mention historical events I often find it almost unnecessary to point out the parallels to today, but in this case I think one ought to see so plainly that we in the West have learned nothing from failed adventures of the past. Canadians are not innocent of this sin by any means, standing by and letting the invasion of Iraq happen without more than a 'no thanks' on our own participation, while obediently taking over for the U.S. in Afghanistan so they could send those troops over to Iraq is complicity that only we don't see. Juan Cole has a point-by-point illustration of how King would have viewed the invasion of Iraq here: Link. "A revolution in American values away from consumer materialism and militarism is needed if we are not to go on having one Vietnam after another[.]"
For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
O, yes, I say it plain,America never was America to me,...
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954-in 1945 rather-after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a government that had been established not by China-for whom the Vietnamese have no great love-but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam. Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of their reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.
How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent communist, and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam, and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will not have a part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them, the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again, and then shore it up upon the power of a new violence?
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
This is also why I'm not losing sleep over the possibility of our dithering middle-managers in our government might be replaced. The neo-liberal trade policies Canada benefits from are a stronger force for injustice than American bombs. And it also can't be fought effectively with violence. The real, insidious force for inequality and injustice in the world, our own blindness to the consequences of our sheltered lifestyle, must be countered only with those principles espoused by King, who saw that they applied universally.
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