January 12, 2007

Celebrate King not just for civil rights but also for antiwar activism

By Barbara Ransby

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as American deaths in Iraq exceed 3,000 and Iraqi casualties climb into the hundreds of thousands, we need to remember King’s words of wisdom about the perils of war.

King was not only an advocate of desegregation and civil rights, but also an internationalist, who in 1967 took a principled but controversial stand against the escalating war in Vietnam.

But many Americans seem more comfortable remembering the early years of his political career than the later ones. In fact, King was smarter, stronger and surer in the last years of his life than he was in 1955, when he first gained national attention.

He opposed the war in Vietnam for some of the same reasons that a majority of Americans now oppose the war in Iraq.

In April 1967, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient delivered an eloquent antiwar speech at Riverside Church in New York City. It was one of his most powerful orations.

“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government,” he said.

King not only advocated nonviolence for the poor, oppressed and subjugated black people of the South, but also for the presidents, the power brokers and profiteers. In King’s view, it is self-serving and duplicitous to tell protesters and people without much power to be calm, dignified and non-aggressive, but at the same time allow governments to perpetuate even greater violence against innocent civilians for the sake of economic and political interests.

In January 2007, it’s crucial to understand King’s message about the dangers of war and imperialism.

“Somehow this madness must cease,” he said. “We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poorin America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.”

King is known widely, but he is not known deeply. As theological and scholar/activist Vincent Harding once wrote, King has been sanitized and made safe for mass consumption.

King was not simply a dreamer but a doer, and some of his most admirable actions were the controversial ones. When he spoke out against the war in Southeast Asia he was criticized as overstepping the bounds of a civil rights leader. King’s response was that issues of injustice all over the world were of concern to him.

The richness of King’s message about nonviolence is in its breadth and its depth. So as schools, churches, temples and synagogues honor King this year, let’s not simply remember the King that stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called for racial unity in 1963, but also the King that stood at the pulpit of Riverside Church and called for an end to wars of aggression in 1967. Its relevance to the moral challenges of 2007 should be readily apparent.

Barbara Ransby is an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of the award-winning biography “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision” (UNC Press, 2003). She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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