06 April 2008

Breaking Silence

April 3 1968, Memphis, Tennessee: Martin Luther King, Jr. stands
on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel the day before his assassination
there. To his left is Ralph Abernathy, to his right are Hosea Williams
and Jesse Jackson. Photograph: AP

On Alternet two essays [1] [2] appeared late last week both of which punctuate the point I made in my Friday post. Both essays quote brief snippets from a speech King delivered a year before he was shot in which he explains the connections, as he he saw them, between, his ongoing struggle for civil rights, his condemnation and struggle against political-economic inequality, and his opposition to what was then 'the' war. Because his comments are so important and because the connections he draws seem to me to obtain today, I think it will perhaps be useful to reproduce them at somewhat greater length.

I have posted on this speech ~ "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" ~ in another context here and here before. Consider the following words from King - just substitute 'Iraq' for 'Vietnam' throughout and, or course, suppress your smirk at the thought that we have maybe made recent progress in fighting poverty and inequality.

[. . .] Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor - both black and white - through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And 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. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent. [. . .]

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view,to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition. [. . .]

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. 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. [...]
We hear much in our public commemorations of King about his famous speeches -"I Have a Dream," and even "I have Been to the Mountaintop." Those indeed are rousing speeches; the latter being the speech he gave in Memphis, where he'd gone in solidarity with striking sanitation workers, the night before he was shot. But neither, I think, spells out as clearly as need be, King's radical analysis of power and poverty in the United States. I wonder if candidates McCain, Obama or Clinton - or any of our current Senators or Congressional representatives or Governors or other elected officials would endorse the views King articulated in April 1967? They all apparently want to take on his mantle so long as that entails no political risk.

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