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Saturday, January 17, 2009

What would Martin Luther King want from us today? by Thad Williamson

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VOICES: What would King want from us today?

The following is based on a speech given by Prof. Thad Williamson of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, for a teach-in on Martin Luther King, Jr. on the school's campus this week.

By Thad Williamson

What would Martin Luther King want from us today?

You might be expecting to hear one of a couple different answers to that question. The first kind of answer would be one rooted in equivocation, stressing that we can't know how King would assess the many changes that have taken place in American society since 1968 and that we should not put words in his mouth.

The second of answer, perhaps more familiar, would consist of the following litany: King would stress how far we have to go as a society, and remind us of the importance of values such as equality and justice. He would call for us to be more engaged, and less selfish. But he would also take pride in the progress we have made and, especially with the election of Barack Obama, say it's okay for us to pat ourselves on the back and reflect on how far we've come as a society and how morally superior we are to previous generations.

Both those answers, I think, are wrong. If we look historically at what King had to say about American society in the final year of his life, a society that in many crucial respects was not so different than the one we inhabit today, I think it become quite clear what King would demand of us today. The real question is whether we are prepared to truly hear and heed those demands.

Most fundamentally, what King would demand of us, here and now, is a complete re-thinking of our own lives as individuals and our own way of life as a nation. In particular, he would demand that Americans fundamentally reexamine and alter the way we, the most militarily powerful country, related with the rest of the world.

In a series of sermons and speeches in 1967 or 1968, as well as his final book Chaos or Community: Where Do We Go From Here? , King called for a "radical revolution of values," which would entail a "shift from a `thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

I want to focus here in particular on King's critique of militarism, since this is the aspect of King's though that is so often brushed aside or forgotten. But let me first add a note on King's philosophy of nonviolence, which underpinned his entire mode of thought, and second a note on historical context, before getting to the specifics of what he had to say in 1967 and 1968 and how it relates to today.

The Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence upon which King drew is based on a simple insight: none of us have a monopoly on truth and justice. This may seem like a simple point, but for Gandhi it carried the following implications: since none of us can be sure that our partial truths are the whole truth, none of us have the right to impose our conception of truth on others by violence. Instead we must seek to convince others first by reason. But because reason often fails, particularly in the case of an oppressed group trying to persuade their oppressors of the justice of their demands, sometimes further action is required. This action should take the form of nonviolent disobedience, in which those disobeying authority attempt to convince both their antagonists and "neutral" observers of the truth of their view by demonstrating their willingness to endure suffering on behalf of that truth. While we do not have the right to inflict suffering on others to advance our views, we do have the right to endure suffering ourselves in witness of our truth and on behalf of our cause.

Now subscribing to this philosophy did not necessarily make King (or for that matter Gandhi) a pacifist in all situations. But King was certainly convinced of the futility of war in changing human hearts. He argued that it was a fallacy to believe to talk of peace as an objective that could be achieved by war--after all he noted, even history's most noted aggressors, people like Napoleon and even Hitler, claimed they were acting in the name of a future peace. Instead, peace must be seen both as a means and an end. Using war as a means to peace is a contradiction in terms, for war induces a never-ending cycle of resentment and violence.

Now to the historical context. By 1967 King had become absolutely convinced that the American course of action in Vietnam was not just a "mistake" but a positive evil, reflecting and spreading a sickness in the American soul. So he began to speak out in vociferous terms against the war, recounting in detail the long history of American involvement in Vietnam, our support for a corrupt military regime, our use of Napalm, our destruction of villages and families. He called on Americans to view our own actions as they were seen by ordinary Vietnamese. Vietnamese peasants, he said, "watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as they bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They must wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have a killed a million of them--mostly children. They wander into town and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers."

With words like these, King broke three big taboos. First he criticized a president of the United States--Lyndon Johnson--widely believed to be a friend to African-Americans, the man who signed the Civil Rights Act, who declared a War on Poverty, who unequivocally sided with the civil rights movement and moved King to tears by stating in a presidential address "we shall overcome." Second, he criticized the American military as an institution. And thirdly, he questioned the justice of American actions.

But this was not all. King juxtaposed the American course of action in Vietnam both with unmet human needs at home and the reality of a world in which the majority of humanity still has not overcome the battle against poverty. He called for "affirmative action to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice," and decried the fact that so often the United States sided not with the world's masses, and had in fact opposed (by force) social change. Instead, he claimed, "our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism, and militarism."

Let us fast forward forty years. Although Soviet-style communism has collapsed and the world has experienced many other changes, I do not think King's basic framework of analysis would be much different than the views he expressed in 1967 and 1968. A major theme of these speeches, for instance, was his stress on the interconnection of the world's peoples by commerce and communication, and his conviction that the fate of the world's peoples are inextricably intertwined. The subsequent development of telecommunications as well as the reality of global warming only reinforce the truth of those propositions.

More specifically, just as U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s was aimed at combating communism, today the unifying framework is fighting terrorism. I think there can be no doubt whatsoever that King would have insisted on the futility of military intimidation as a way to prevent the long-term threat of terrorism. He would point out that we are now spending over $500 billion a year on the military, over three times as much as the estimated annual cost of a comprehensive plan to eradicate global poverty, in addition to passing nearly a trillion dollar bailout for powerful corporations, and say that our priorities are seriously out of order--more seriously than any of our politicians (including the just elected President) care to admit.

And while there is no doubt he would have been extremely critical of our military enterprise in Iraq, he would have gone far beyond the usual parameters of discussion. Today it is socially acceptable to favor withdrawal in Iraq because of the American lives have been lost, the financial cost of the war, because all that can be accomplished has been accomplished, or because the war in Iraq represents a strategic mistake. It is less socially acceptable, however, to talk about our practice of torture during interrogations or the abominations at Abu Ghraib. And very rarely at all do we hear attention paid to the fact that, by some estimates, some 1.3 million Iraqis--overwhelmingly civilians--have died as a consequence of our invasion in 2003, or serious media attention the many attempts to document alleged war crimes committed by American troops in Iraq such as the targeting of civilians and use of illegal weapons.

In short, despite all that has happened, we remain disinclined to scrutinize seriously the justice of our own actions and our own motivations, and to make a serious attempt to view ourselves as the rest of the world sees us. But that act of moral imagination is precisely that King's revolution of values requires. And King thought that when we become aware of the fact that our country, great as it is, is but a small slice of humanity, amidst a world in which thousands of children die everyday from malnutrition and billions of people live on just $2 day, we would find ourselves moved by the conviction that we in America can not "stand by idly and not be concerned."

Yet while King insisted that we open our eyes to the overwhelming disparities in the world around us, he steadfastly refused to let realism become an excuse for cynicism or a descent into bitter anger. King believed that the moral arc of the universe bent towards justice, a belief rooted in his theological convictions and his particular conception of human dignity. Put another way, stripping ourselves of the happy myths we tell ourselves about our country does not mean stripping ourselves of hope and determination to act on behalf of justice and on behalf of our highest aspirations.

There is still one final wrinkle that needs to be added. In answering the question what would Dr. King want from us, we need to think very specifically about who "us" is--that is us here and now at the University of Richmond. In 1967 King wrote that "One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great period of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolution."

Historically it is probably not unfair to state that the University of Richmond more often than not has been one of the protectors of the status quo, housing "fraternities of the indifferent." But King certainly believed we are not and cannot be bound by our history. So I think he would want to know, who here in this institution of privilege, who here whose adult life stretches ahead of them, who here is willing to devote themselves and their life energies to pursuing justice, not just as an internship or something one does on the side, but as a principal calling, and as an organizing principle for one's life. King would ask that question of each one of us, not only because the vineyard of justice always needs more workers but because academic training and the opportunity to become both intellectually and personally disciplined, while not sufficient in themselves in the absence of practical experience, have a crucial contribution to make in the formation of leaders.

So he would want to know who amongst us is ready to take advantage of the opportunities this place affords to begin to mold one's self into a lifelong worker and fighter for justice?

In King's view then, and I am quite certain now, the future depended on the answer. For as he rightly insisted, "Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to reestablish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral awakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments."

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