Sunday, April 4, 2010

Back to the Future

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

When many people think of King, they think of his inspiring, uplifting messages — his "I Have a Dream" speech that he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the August 1963 March on Washington or the speech he gave 42 years ago last night, the night before his assassination, when he told his followers he had been to the mountaintop.

In the 1950s and 1960s, King was reviled by segregationists, but he had the support of many who held positions of power in Washington and many who held positions of influence in the media. Among those groups, his work for racial equality was perceived as being on the right side of history.

But I have long believed that it was a speech he gave exactly one year before his assassination, at Riverside Church in New York, that changed his relationship with many who had supported and protected him. On that occasion, he spoke against American policy in Vietnam.

His allies would not stand with him on the subject of Vietnam. The war had nothing to do with racial injustice, they argued. Not so, said King, who believed that peace and prosperity went hand in hand. And he believed that to remain silent was betrayal.

(Or, as Edmund Burke put it, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.")

Because so many rejected his message in 1967, the tragedy of Vietnam went on, and thousands more Americans died needless deaths. In recent years, I have felt that we were repeating that mistake in the Middle East.

Apparently, Bob Herbert agrees with me, although the focus of his attention is mostly on Afghanistan, not Iraq — of the two, I have believed for many years that Iraq was the unjustifiable war.

King's message in that speech at Riverside Church in 1967 wasn't a radical departure from what he had been saying throughout his public life. But, as Herbert observes in the New York Times, it was controversial because he questioned what the government was doing in Vietnam.

Even the NAACP thought he was making a mistake in shifting his focus from civil rights to foreign policy. But King felt (and said so, in words that were far more eloquent than mine) that economic opportunity and peace were compatible, and economic opportunity was the key to equal rights. The war in Vietnam ran counter to the ultimate objective of the civil rights movement.

In 1967, to question the government's policy in Vietnam was seen as nothing short of heresy — and those who spoke out were often seen as advocating communism. Even entertainers (i.e., the Smothers Brothers) were censored when their comedy was believed to be contrary to national policy abroad.

King was not a communist, and, eventually, a majority of Americans came to share his view of Vietnam. But his speech drove a wedge between him and many who had supported him in the past.

And things, Herbert argues, haven't changed all that much in four–plus decades. True, America has a black president now — something that even Dr. King may not have dared to imagine — but Herbert sees that president making the same mistake that Lyndon Johnson made in the 1960s — sending more troops (this time to Afghanistan) "in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support," to use King's own words.

"More than 4,000 Americans have died in Iraq and more than 1,000 in Afghanistan, where the Obama administration has chosen to escalate rather than to begin a careful withdrawal," writes Herbert. "Those two wars, as the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and his colleague Linda Bilmes have told us, will ultimately cost us more than $3 trillion.

"And yet the voices in search of peace, in search of an end to the 'madness,' in search of the nation–building so desperately needed here in the United States, are feeble indeed."

Until America learns from the mistakes of the past, it will continue to make them.

And the madness will go on.

During his life, King was an advocate of civil rights, as everyone knows, but he advocated civil rights for all, not just one group. That is why the words he spoke still speak to us today. He spoke of fairness, not unfair advantage. And he knew that economic opportunity was at the heart of the human struggle.

No doubt he agreed with Gandhi, who said, "Poverty is the worst kind of violence." He certainly made it clear what he thought of a government that would commit so much money and so many lives to waging war overseas instead of dedicating those resources to programs designed to improve things at home.

I wonder how he would feel about an administration that, faced with massive unemployment and under–employment and budget crises in nearly every state, chose to escalate a war?

Well, just as in Dr. King's day, the poor, the hungry, the unemployed will pay the price for it.

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