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PORTSIDE  January 2011, Week 2

PORTSIDE January 2011, Week 2

Subject:

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Call for Peace as Racial Justice Still Rings

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Date:

Thu, 13 Jan 2011 22:28:53 -0500

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Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Call for Peace as Racial Justice Still Rings

by Michelle Chen

ColorLines

January 13, 2011

http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/01/the_fierce_urgency_of_now_kings_call_for_peace_still_resonates_today.html

	I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as
	it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak
	as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own
	nation: The great initiative in this war is ours;
	the initiative to stop it must be ours. 
	- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. "broke the silence" on the war
on Vietnam in 1967, he shattered the establishment rhetoric
on America's mission in Southeast Asia. His speech, "Beyond
Vietnam: Time to Break the Silence," delivered at Riverside
Church in upper Manhattan, still has revolutionary ring to
it as we approach MLK Day more than 40 years later.

Taking a politically risky and unpopular stance - and
bucking the advice of some of his most trusted advisors -
King drew a link between the destruction of war in Vietnam
and the devastation of America's stratified society. He
framed the independence struggle of the Vietnamese as the
freedom struggle of communities of color at home.

Civil rights advocates who had preceded King had often bound
up patriotism with ideas of racial uplift - for instance, in
the Double V campaign of World War II. But King recognized
the cancerous injustice of the Vietnam 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.

Today, antiwar activism is much more entwined with movements
for human rights and racial justice, thanks in large part to
King's prescience. But the march of war continues to trample
souls, in distant battlefields and on blighted American
streets. And some activists fear the antiwar movement has
waned since the 2008 election, which drained momentum from
the opposition that flourished under the Bush administration
and left some groups less willing to challenge a presidency
hailed as a civil rights victory to itself.

In the coming days, grassroots groups around the country
will remember King's stance on the war and take stock of how
much, or how little, the country has progressed since King
first broke his silence.

In New York City, Iraq Veterans against the War will bring
together community members in the Bronx for a reading of
King's speech. IVAW organizer and Iraq veteran Andrew
Johnson said that this time, the silence may be harder to
penetrate:

    The mobilization of the American people against the wars
    in Iraq and Afghanistan might be more difficult than
    against Vietnam. Casualties are lower, of course. Also,
    there is no draft, which allows most of the American
    public to ignore the problem without facing such a
    direct impact as a loved one being drafted. Most major
    news outlets do not offer serious reports about the
    wars.... It is important to get messages like those from
    "Beyond Vietnam," but it is hard to do in a climate of
    apathy.

When King told his audience, "The bombs in Vietnam explode
at home," he inverted the prevailing notion that the price
of national security would be borne solely by the country we
designated as the enemy. He was advancing a globalization of
the civil rights movement that was already underway. As
historian Mary Dudziak has pointed out, "Third World"
activists, embroiled in their on post-war, anti-colonial
liberation movements, had watched the protests in Birmingham
closely, seeking inspiration and a platform to challenge
Washington's hypocrisy.

King feared that eventually humankind's capacity to self-
destruct would grow faster than its capacity for compassion.
Literary scholar David Bromwich wrote that King's
perspective on modern warfare was shaped by the fact that as
technology evolved, "Things built over ages can be made to
vanish in an instant under its annihilating stroke. That is
what happened to the ancient culture, the farms, and the
forests of Vietnam under the unleashed assault of American
air power." The methods of war are increasingly mechanized
today, enabling an unmanned drone to destroy instantly an
enemy on the ground, or the unfortunate civilians and
children caught in the crosshairs.

Violence has a perverse way of reconfiguring social divides
and loyalties, King noted:

    So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of
    watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill
    and die together for a nation that has been unable to
    seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them
    in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village,
    but we realize that they would never live on the same
    block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of
    such cruel manipulation of the poor.

Tragically, the commemorations of King this year come just
days after the shootings in Arizona exposed the violence
poisoning the country's political arena. The senselessness
of the carnage bears out King's imagery of "a society gone
mad on war," caught in a spiral of militarization that
yielded only "might without morality, and strength without
sight."

Medea Benjamin of Code Pink told Colorlines that King's
uncompromising antiwar stance rings as true as ever today:

    You change Vietnam to Iraq or you change Vietnam to
    Afghanistan, and you have the most powerful speech you
    can hear about why the wars that we're engaged in are
    wrong, how they are wars against people of color, how
    they are racist wars, how we don't care about our own
    soldiers - people who are struggling here at home just
    to get a job or an education, whom we're sending
    overseas to kill poor people. Unfortunately, it's not so
    much an echo of the past; it's a clarion call to the
    present.

Other Kings

There is a Martin Luther King, Jr., that we may not
recognize from elementary school textbooks, the human rights
activist who has galvanized generations of resistance
movements from the Horn of Africa to death row. Though many
of his successors have taken a more radical tone or diverged
from the nonviolent tactics he promoted, his message against
war endures. That's why some Pan-Africanist commentary on
southern Sudan's independence referendum this month invoked
the preacher's words. And Hugo Chavez, proud foe of American
hegemony, recently hailed King as a martyr.

A statement commemorating King from the New York-based
Pakistan Solidarity Network frames "Beyond Vietnam" as an
essentially anti-imperialist critique:

    As King urged, we must imagine our work holistically,
    because the imperial project we are resisting does not
    obey any boundary: the "War on Terror" has created a
    social, legal, and economic reality that is destroying
    countless people of color and migrants at home and
    world-round.

Yet King's words are subject to distortion as well. His
comments on Zionism, for instance, have been repackaged to
bolster Israeli aggression in the occupied territories. His
early death left open the challenge of interpreting and
internalizing his legacy.

In a 2009 essay criticizing the politically sanitized,
mainstream portrayals of King, Alan Singer argued:

    If Dr King had not been assassinated, but had lived to
    become an old radical activist constantly questioning
    American policy, I suspect he would never have become so
    venerated. It is better for a country to have heroes who
    are dead, because they cannot make embarrassing
    statements opposing continuing injustice and unnecessary
    wars.

King was in fact considered an unwelcome troublemaker for
most of his short life. The anti-war and antipoverty
politics he'd begun to put at the forefront of his activism
had drawn increasingly unflattering commentary in the run up
to his assassination. We can celebrate that he lived long
enough to further a legacy of antiwar activism rooted in
racial justice.

This year, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith
peace organization historically tied to the civil rights
movement that now campaigns on every continent, draws
inspiration from King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech in its new
campaign, "Demilitarization of Life & Land."

Focusing on the Middle East and Latin America, the group's
mission statement centers on "Resisting the militarization
of territory (high schools, farm lands, military bases,
whole nations) and of our bodies (through military
recruitment, weapons sales, threats and acts of war)," and
campaigning for "peaceful relations through grassroots
diplomacy, protective accompaniment of threatened
communities, and a federal budget with new priorities."

At the annual King Peace Program at the King Center in
Atlanta today, coordinated by the American Friends Service
Committee, community members are revisiting King's Vietnam
speech as a touchstone for contemplating today's peace
movement. Timothy Franzen, a program director with AFSC-
Atlanta, pointed to "the striking connections between a
bloated military budget, a broken domestic economy, and the
institutional racism we see in our schools and communities."

The financing of war at the expense of "programs for social
uplift," Franzen said, "has created a situation where low-
income youth often get caught up in two of our country's
most destructive systems of violence and oppression, the
military and prison industrial systems. Both thrive on tax
dollars, racial inequity, and the constant production of
enough fear to garner unquestioning support [from] the
general public."

When participants in today's event read from King's speech,
their words will outline the same vision impressed on the
audience at Riverside Church in 1967. When he looked "Beyond
Vietnam," King imagined transcendence and convergence: the
weaving together of struggles that we've always been taught
to keep separate, to form "a single garment of destiny."

[Michelle Chen works and plays in New York City. Besides
freelance reporting, her various occupations have included
ethnographic research in Shanghai and coat-checking at a
West Village jazz club. Her writing has also appeared in In
These Times, South China Morning Post, Women's International
Perspective, and her old zine, cain. ]

___________________________________________

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