A Reader Remembers Martin Luther King

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MLK 2.jpgThis is a guest note by regular TWN reader Donald Bacon. The piece originally appeared a year ago on the blog site of Taylor Marsh.
I miss you, Martin Luther King, Jr. I know many people today don’t remember you, and that’s a pity, because there stood a man.
MLK was a champion of civil rights, we all know that. This country was ruled by racists and Martin, using the tactics of Thoreau and Gandhi, overcame them with passion and nonviolence.
What a lot of people don’t remember, or choose to forget, is that King was also an anti-war champion. I remember, it was the late sixties, when King came out against the Vietnam War. See, back then the Vietnam war was the good war. It was a necessary war, and if you were against the war you were against America. (Sound familiar?)
Rev. King bucked the tide, was incredibly strong again, and came out against the war. I remember that one of my fellow army officers, an African-American, Captain Mitchell (he won’t mind), blasted MLK for this. He should have stuck to civil rights, he said. (We both had been to ‘Nam but we held different views.)
This was a typical reaction. What does Martin Luther King know about war? He’s in over his head. Is he too stupid to understand how important this war is? It’s none of his business. And King was reviled — not revered — by many white Americans
Martin Luther King, whatever else you might say about him, and many did, wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t intimidated. He understood that war is bad for people.
Martin Luther King, Jr., January, 1968: “I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism…”
The “madness of militarism”. King was even more eloquent in 1967 when he decided “to break the silence of the night”:

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence
by Rev. Martin Luther King
Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.. .
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. . .
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. . . .
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.
Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision.
There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. . .
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home.. .
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems.. . .
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 unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. . .
If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.. .
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” . . .
Finally, as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.

We miss you, Martin Luther King. If it’s any comfort to you, the guy who was running the Vietnam war at the time, Robert S. McNamara, later said in his memoirs: “We were wrong, terribly wrong.”
So you were right, Dr. King, about the madness of militarism, and they were wrong. But you knew that.
It’s a pity that there is nobody of your moral stature to speak out about the current wars. There is nobody like you to say “my conscience leaves me no other choice.”
Postscript:
The night of April 3, 1968, in Memphis, King was exhausted from agitating in support of sanitation workers demanding better pay. He begged off speaking but finally agreed to address the audience at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
He was shot and killed the next day. At our neighborhood volleyball game one of my white neighbors said: “It’s coon-hunting season in Tennessee.”
Whatever. I miss you, Martin. You showed us the promised land.
— Donald Bacon

Comments

2 comments on “A Reader Remembers Martin Luther King

  1. JohnH says:

    The wealthy and powerful decided long ago that it’s best to tolerate King the civil rights champion. But King the champion of peace and economic justice? You will barely see that mentioned.
    As we see in the Time article above, King’s message has been shrunk to be as inoffensive as possible. And even that part remains highly offensive to the Republican base, rooted in the South.

    Reply

  2. DonS says:

    I, too, remember the Riverside Church speech, the negative and condescending reactions of many. I remember feeling validated in my own thoughts, but also in MLK, who was being overshadowed and dismissed by many, black and white, because he did not seem to represent a kind of militancy commensurate with the times, with the regressiveness of the government, and suffered in this regard by comparison with the young lions, such as the leaders of SNCC and SDS. Even his apparent conversion to anti-war was viewed suspiciously by some as a johnny-come-lately attempt at relevance. King never got a chance to fully flesh out his new direction before being murdered. But his growing moral authority leads one to believe he would continue to be an important anti-war voice — maybe too important.
    As Don Bacon notes regarding the comparisons between Vietnam (the ‘good war’) and today’s conflicts, it is important to remember the calumny that is heaped on war opponents (far less vocal today sans the draft) today is based in the same kind of false patriotism and blind support of corrupt government policies as was true in the Vietnam era. The very clever foreign policy analysts of today seem for the most part to discredit if not ridicule comparisons with Vietnam as misguided and naive. They, or course, are as wrong now as they were then (thank you Mr. Macnamara), coopted and corrupt themselves. Willful blindness in the face of military-political-corporatist deceit is as valid today — perhaps moreso since we should have learned lessons — as it was 40 years ago. It is as apparent and relevant today to those who remember the Vietnam period accurately as it was at the time of the Riverside speech.
    Other factors which are clearly parallel today include the tension over ‘guns and butter’ politics and economics, today translated into even more sophisticated fiscal chicanery to fill the corporate coffers and burden the poor and middle class. And one cannot overlook the disproportionate burden of economic collapse falling on the poor and minorities, ignored for the most part by the powers that be; less cushioned since the Clinton eviseration of the welfare system; backed up by a penal justice system that seems to have unlimited capacity for jailing people of color for minor infractions.
    King was right in his evolving diagnosis of the malaise affecting America. Sadly, his vision, while given lip service on days like today — though vilified by others — seems irrelevant in terms of sufficient action towards a more humane and equal society. Indeed, the gospel of selfishness seems more alive and healthy than ever.

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