“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 from nonviolent action. But they asked–and rightly so–what about Vietnam? They asked 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 hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Riverside Church in New York City
4 April 1967.
As we move toward yet another celebration of the birth of perhaps the most outstanding American next to Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Frederick Douglass, that other speech has grown louder year-by-year as was written as a voice crying in the wilderness of our souls. It speaks ever louder to our nation even though the war it was aimed to question and condemn so strongly is long over.
The terrible event in Tuscon, Arizona this past week, the continued war in Afghanistan undertaken in our name, the release of the Scott sisters from a Mississippi prison after almost sixteen years, reminds us of that other speech. George Washington was the father of our nation; Abraham Lincoln its savior. Frederick Douglass was the greatest champion of his people and the most relentless orator of his age. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is our greatest prophet. This year, as we celebrate his birth and life on this earth and what it meant and continues to mean to us, let us not forget the “I Have a Dream Speech” but let us move on to the courageous speech he made in a New York City church exactly one year before his death. It destroyed his public standing in America until the tragedy of his early death like so many others who preached social justice and right before him, brought Americans to the realization of what they had lost.
If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were still with us what would he see?
He would see a nation that has moved toward all he warned about in that 1967 speech and not in the direction he called the hearts of all in our nation that day. If you listen to the speech in its audio form, you hear a man who is somber, mournful, reflective, and not triumphant or joyful. He knows the difficult message he has to proclaim to his people; not just African-Americans but all Americans. He knows the speech will not make him popular or beloved. He knows the powerful will reject him and that honors won in hard struggle may be lost.
Today, the United States of America has fully lost its way. We maintain a war in Afghanistan where we provide an example to the world that might makes right and not the phrase Lincoln used at Cooper Union to such effect about the true America of “right makes might.” We are an imperial power that turns first to military power and violence to achieve our ends. This does not mean the heroic young men and women who serve us there are evil. They are not. They are doing their duty and serving us as they see it. Only their leaders have let them down. They have not provided the example of just how their service ought to be employed. Our nation spends more on military weapons that kill than any nation on earth. We spend six times more than any other nation on earth. Is this the face of freedom and liberty? Is it the consent of the governed so enshrined in our founding document the Declaration of Independence?
The Scott sisters have gotten out of prison. While there, they have no doubt realized that their crime (if they actually committed it) was wrong. They have paid dearly for at worst simply luring people to a theft in a park. Now they are grandmothers and one needs a transplant operation to live. But their case would only remind Dr. King that the United States incarcerates more human beings than any nation on earth. And that nation, imprisons more people of color disproportionately than any nation on earth. What has happened to the move toward racial justice? And the people who live in what were in 1967 called the “ghettos” of racial injustice remain. They suffer, they hurt, they too often have no hope. Is it any wonder that many turn to drugs, violence, and crime and once they are ensnared in our legal system they have little hope of exiting from it. Those who are from the dominant racial and ruling group on the other hand receive laxer treatment and retain hope.
And those bitter, angry young men Dr. King referred to in 1967 are still there. They come in all colors and from all backgrounds. And if they should look around to see what their leaders do to solve problems, what their culture does, what their communications and news media does to address problems, they find language and exhortations that dignifies violence as the solution to what ails the human soul. The event that took place a week ago in Tuscon is just the very outer fringe of a greater injustice. In our nation’s schools children themselves learn violence and pick up on the anger and frustrations of their parents and those elders around them and bully and harass those who are different. Teen age suicide and even the Columbine shooting of so many years ago is just the bitter fruit of children who have been ostracized and cut out of the inner group that should nurture them and provide compassion in their lives that leads to the healthy development of the human mind, body, and soul so sought by the ancient Greeks but not yet realized.
The nation, by how it uses its resources would scream at Dr. King if he were alive today at what our real priorities are: making weapons to kill, having the most money possible to do what we want at the expense of others, grasping for power over others, excluding others who are different from us, giving in to the selfishness and lack of vision that plagues the human condition no matter how hard we might try on our own to free ourselves from it.
This Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day: 2011, this nation should take a close look at that other speech, and see its prophetic words and heed them. We cannot always live in the light and joy of proclaiming liberty when the darkness has such a hold over us. We have to break our silence about those things that breed injustice and insist that goodness, and right, and justice, and compassion must animate our entire beings every single day we live.
President Obama reminded the nation of this in his speech in Tucson this week. Even he must reflect upon Dr. King’s words and his own and take a very hard look at what we do with weapons around the globe, power and might, words that harm, prisons that oppress the guilty and innocent alike, and poverty that cries out for the clean waters of justice that Dr. King wanted to continually pour over the soul of our nation.
“Finally, as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.”
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Can we shape a new vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Day? Can we join him, and use not only his loving and hopeful words but his words of warning and prophetic teaching to change America to what it was meant to be, and something more aligned to justice in our world? His speech that day in 1967 was a very hard thing for the nation to hear. They rejected it as did the Israelites so many prophets in the ancient world. Can we now move to accept this difficult but necessary teaching?