Last week, during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, we heard again and again about Dr. King’s dream. We heard repeated his call for this country to be something more than it was, to live up to the ideals written into our Constitution ... Last week, during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, we heard again and again about Dr. King’s dream. We heard repeated his call for this country to be something more than it was, to live up to the ideals written into our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and to become a society grounded in justice and equal rights. Over and over again, we held up his vision of America as a place where a person should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” and all of us said, “Amen.”
Thirty-five years after his death, it’s amazing how relevant his words remain. And that’s not restricted to what he said about civil rights. So much of what he said and wrote about poverty, economic opportunity, human dignity and non-violence remains so very relevant today. I was thinking about this during the long holiday weekend, particularly Dr. King’s outspoken opposition to the War in Vietnam, and I couldn’t help notice the parallels between what’s happening today as we prepare for the war against Iraq and what happened during the 1960s as we escalated our undeclared war against North Vietnam. I also couldn’t help but wish there was someone of Dr. King’s stature to counter the incessant drumbeat of aggression we hear from the Bush Administration.
On April 4, 1967, Dr. King spoke at Riverside Church in New York during a meeting of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam and outlined his opposition to the war. I think it’s a message we need to hear again. That night, Dr. King made of point of telling the audience that he wasn’t speaking to the North Vietnamese, Russia, China or any other countries opposed to the United States’ actions in southeast Asia, just as this column isn’t addressed to Iraq, Al Quida or any countries opposed to our actions in the Middle East. Instead, Dr. King was addressing America and again asking it to live up to its ideals and be something better than it currently was.
As an advocate of social justice, Dr. King was opposed to the war because of the resources it sucked away from the recently enacted “War on Poverty.” As a civil rights leader, he decried the disproportionate number of people of color being sent to fight and die compared to the rest of the population. As a disciple of nonviolence and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, he could not stand silently by as his country continually turned to violence as the primary means for resolving violence.
As a citizen of the world, Dr. King could not justify our propping up regimes that denied their people the rights and freedoms we too often take for granted. You go through the list, and it’s hard to imagine that Dr. King would not be speaking out against what we’re trying to do in Iraq. It’s hard to believe that he would not be condemning the massive buildup of our military at the same time we’re kicking working families off medical assistance or gutting proven programs like Head Start.
It’s hard to believe that Dr. King would not be calling for a policy addressing the root causes of terrorism —poverty, ignorance and despair— while at the same time trying to break the cycle of violence in the region. Dr. King understood how difficult it was to speak out against war and injustice, particularly when it’s a war waged by one’s own government and one that has been embraced by so many.
But Dr. King also understood that there are times when “silence is betrayal.” This is one of those times.
Thirty-five years after Dr. King’s death, we remember his dream for America. At least part of it. We remember his call for this country to be something more than it was, to live up to the ideals written into our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and to become a society grounded in justice and equal rights. We forget, however, that Dr. King also called us to be an instrument of peace and justice throughout the world. It’s