Last week, the news media were full of tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All three presidential candidates paid tribute to King on the 40th anniversary of his death. Even George W. Bush, in Croatia, had praise for King’s legacy.
It was to be expected, of course, that the tragic anniversary of King’s death would elicit such a reaction. Of all the Americans of the 20th century, King stands alone as a giant. Schoolchildren memorize his speeches. His moral authority and achievements are paralleled in American history only by those of Abraham Lincoln.
But, looking down on us from heaven, King must be amused by all the fuss that surrounds each anniversary of his birth and death, not only because his messages have been distorted since 1968, but also because some of the people who now lionize him are the same kinds of people who tried to destroy him while he was alive.
It’s bizarre that the same federal government that now celebrates his birthday with a national holiday is the same government that harassed, slandered and blackmailed him. It’s the same institution that called him a “notorious liar” and illegally wiretapped him for many years.
King is a subject that one can never explore enough. In his short lifetime, he wrote enough words and gave enough speeches to provide years of exploration and discovery for scholars. Yet it is only his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and his eerily morbid speech the night before he died that are replayed on TV.
His more radical statements, the ones in which he decried war as an instrument of foreign policy, are buried in books and ignored by politicians who shower his memory with accolades. But they remain stark and inspiring reminders of why the man was so great.
Substitute the word “Iraq” for Vietnam in the following paragraph and King’s words from 1967 remain as vital as they were then:
“It should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.”
In that speech, given at the Riverside Church in New York, King said that, as someone engaged in a ministry of Jesus Christ, he had to speak out against the war.
“To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?”
King would have opposed just about everything that George W. Bush stands for: war, economic repression and imperialism. One must concede, however, that if not for King, Bush’s choice of a black woman for secretary of state might not have been possible.
But what would have King said to Condoleezza Rice over coffee? Would they have bonded over the things they share in common, or would he have implored her to reconsider a failed foreign policy based on interventionism, intimidation and military force?
King might have updated the terminology of his Riverside speech to her as Rice defended the Iraq war as one of liberation. “What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
“We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops … We have supported the enemies of the peasants ... We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?”
The next time you hear a conservative praise Dr. King, consider the source.