Reclaiming the Dream

402px-Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_JohnsonWhat follows is a guest post by a good friend of mine. In anticipation of President Obama’s speech today, this piece strives to summarize an accurate picture of Dr. King’s moral beliefs and reveal an important contrast with United States foreign policy.

Today, America commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King’s words boomed across America, piercing the soul of a torn nation. Racial tensions simmered under the surface of American society for centuries, and in 1963 these wounds tore open. Alabama Governor George Wallace started his term by defiantly declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!”; thousands of African-Americans – including Dr. King – were arrested during protests organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators; Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered. Week after week Americans witnessed the horrors of segregation and discrimination play out on their televisions, broadcasting to the world that our professed values of freedom and justice were being systematically denied to the African-American community.

Central to Dr. King’s philosophy was the powerful tool of non-violent resistance. Inspired by Christ and Gandhi, Dr. King believed lasting equality could only be achieved through non-violent means and that the power of love and dignity would always outweigh hate and bitterness. Most importantly, Dr. King’s living and writing highlighted the fallacy of using violence to overcome violence because he believed that when people imitate the immoral actions of their oppressors, even if in self-defense, all moral standing is lost, and a vicious cycle of injustice is perpetuated. After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King reflects on the successful power of non-violent resistance:

True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power…Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart…Non-violence resistance [is] one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice.

Dr. King eventually extended this moral vision even further and joined the anti-war movement. While Dr. King’s struggle against oppression and social injustice began here in America, his moral vision extended beyond our borders and he became an outspoken critic of American aggression in the Vietnam War. He saw no moral difference between police brutality on the streets of Montgomery and the massacre in My Lai—between the torture of African-Americans imprisoned in Mississippi and the torture of Vietnamese civilians in the Mekong Delta.

On April 4, 1967, Dr. King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City entitled “A Time to Break Silence,” in which he decried the indiscriminate violence against the people of Vietnam perpetrated by the United States and called for a radical revolution of values in the hearts of the American citizens and policy makers:

The Nobel Prize for Peace was a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances… Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood… A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

When Dr. King was criticized for joining the antiwar movement, particularly because critics saw him solely as a civil rights leader, he replied:

I have worked too long now, and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.

In this speech we see Dr. King not as an African-American, but as a citizen of the world; his universal moral vision not reserved for a particular political party, race, religion, or country, but for all humanity; his firm convictions transcending the African-American community and embracing the oppressed around the globe.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life…We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.

As we pause to commemorate Dr. King’s dream, it raises the question: What would he say about our current wars and the state of American foreign policy? Would he support the means we’re using to pursue peace, justice, and democracy at home and abroad?

While many of the realities of The War on Terror have been known for years, the extent to which we have lost our humanity was not fully understood until U.S. Army Pfc. Manning released classified material to the website WikiLeaks in 2010—vivid specifics of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Iraq firing on a group of civilian journalists, descriptions of torture and imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay, as well as the grueling details of the large number of Iraqi and Afghani civilian casualties. Before commencing a 35-year prison sentence, Manning wrote a letter to President Obama:

In our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability. In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Last month, Dr. Cornel West, an African-American professor at Union Theological Seminary, author, and civil rights advocate was asked to speculate what Dr. King would say on the 50th Anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. Dr. West said:

The irony is…Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name, because he would talk about drones…Do you think anybody at that march will talk about drones and the drone president?… Bush was the capture-and-torture president. Now we’ve got the targeted killing president, the drone president. That’s not progress. That’s not part of the legacy of Martin King… Will the connection between drones, new Jim Crow, prison-industrial complex, attacks on the working class, escalating profits at the top, be talked about and brought together during that march? I don’t hold my breath. But Brother Martin’s spirit would want somebody to push it.

Dr. King frequently criticized US Presidents in his lifetime, even those championing the cause of civil rights. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was an ally for the African-American community, yet Dr. King opposed Johnson’s support of the Vietnam War. Similarly, while I believe Dr. King would be proud of our nation for electing an African-American to the highest office in the land, he would not hesitate to condemn the massive violence the administration has perpetuated. His moral principle of non-violent resistance would compel him to once again join hands with those condemning the War on Terror.

I believe Dr. King would speak out against the force feeding of inmates in Guantanamo Bay; the drones buzzing over Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, dropping bombs on teachers and children; the thousands of American service members who have died in Afghanistan; the thousands more American and NATO soldiers returning without limbs; the American-made tear gas and weapons used against democratic demonstrators in the Middle East. I believe Dr. King’s words would once again boom across our National Mall and echo through our Capitol dome, calling on our leaders to invest not in weapons of violence but in the wellbeing of humanity. I believe Dr. King’s voice would fill the Oval Office, reminding our President that pursuing peace through war will never, in the end, accomplish what he and others hope. It will only breed hate and bitterness.

Above all, I believe Dr. King would call on us to not let divisions of race, religion, creed or nation force us to abandon our humanity; to not let the seeds of hate grow into jungles of violence. I believe he would unwaveringly declare that injustice anywhere is truly a threat to justice everywhere. I believe he would ask us to see that the bullets killing our children in Newtown and Sanford are the same bullets killing children in Kabul and Baghdad; to see that the tears of the widowed military-wife in Yonkers are the same tears of the widows in Yemen; to see that the hopelessness that races through the mind of the young Afghani in Kandahar who straps a bomb to his chest is the same hopelessness in the mind of the returned soldier in Kansas who puts a gun to his head; to see that the citizens stopped and frisked on the streets of New York are the same citizens frisked at checkpoints in Kunduz.

Fifty years ago today, a dream was planted into the collective conscience of our nation, a dream that spoke to the very core of our social ills and global injustices, a dream founded on the idea of rejecting aggression and courageously confronting evil with the power of love. Once this moral philosophy is applied consistently at home and abroad, we can build a world Dr. King would be proud of.

President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)