Monday was Martin Luther King Day. It almost slipped past me unnoticed. In the car Monday morning, I caught a bit of one of his speeches. Four minutes, tops. Yet enough to get me thinking. After work, I researched which speech it was that I had gotten a tantalizing taste of. “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” was delivered at New York City’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. I downloaded the speech and listened to it as I read along. The words flowed off the pages and out of my speakers and pooled around me, vibrant and alive. Has it really been forty years? Some days, it seems that we have made no progress at all.
When King was in his prime, I was a suburban teen, more concerned with matching my knee socks to my sweaters and skirts than I was about civil rights. It simply wasn’t a part of my life. And when King was assassinated, exactly one year after giving this speech, he vanished into an overarching sadness that I dimly felt but could not articulate. I’d like to belatedly take a moment to honor a man whose vision still reverberates after all these years, if we will but listen.
A child of the South, King came north after college to do his advanced studies, including a doctorate from Boston U. in 1955. Two years later, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the eleven years that he was at its helm, he traveled six million miles, wrote five books, gave 2,500 speeches, and was arrested 20 times. He graced the cover of Time Magazine as Man of the Year in 1963. The following year, Rev. King was, at 35, the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize. He donated all of the prize money to the civil rights movement, which was his passion. His opposition to the Vietnam War sprang naturally from his commitment to social justice. By the time King gave the speech I heard today, he was already a major figure in the anti-war movement. He was maligned for his supposed lack of patriotism. The criticism didn’t slow him down; only a gunman could do that. His many accomplishments make it hard to grasp that he was just 39 years old at the time of his death.
As a third-generation minister at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King’s speeches are marinated in the images, rhythms, and cadences of the pulpit. He is passionate, but controlled. He speaks slowly and confidently. His phrasing and word choice are exquisite. See for yourself.
This particular speech is incredibly timely. In many places, you could simply replace “Vietnam” with “Iraq” and it would still ring true. Someone reported that, in his family, they have a tradition of reading this speech aloud every year on King’s birthday. I understand the impulse.
King explains how he came to focus his energies against the war. Sincere governmental attempts to deal with poverty were easily jettisoned with the advent of the war.
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.He points out the irony that integrated troops were fighting and dying together “to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” The disproportionate participation of the poor and minorities in the armed forces made the war even more unpalatable to him.
One of King’s strengths was in motivating people to get involved. Here, he lays out various excuses for doing nothing: the fear of appearing unpatriotic, particularly in a time of war, apathy, and the complicated nature of the issues that leave us “always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty.” He is not casting aspersions from a position of moral superiority. He takes responsibility for “the betrayal of my own silences.”
Silence is no longer an option; it is now the enemy. Listen to his phrasing as he argues his case. “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly…Tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now… Procrastination is still the thief of time… Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘too late…’ We must speak.”
The stage is set. King closes the case masterfully: “Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.” Repetition and parallel phrasing create the momentum that carries the speech to a crescendo: “And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
As I write this piece, the Democratic debate drones on in the background. Martin Luther King, Jr. has featured prominently tonight. No surprise there. South Carolina has a huge number of African-American voters and it is Martin Luther King Day, after all. The candidates were asked which of them King would have endorsed. I found that a tad bizarre.
This is better: in Voter ID allies betray King and democracy, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution correctly identifies a disconnect between MLK’s legacy and this means of modern-day vote suppression.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day 2008, we should recall his crusade for citizenship and equal political participation. Unfortunately, the proponents of modern "ballot security" laws have chosen to ignore King's legacy and in doing so have betrayed American democracy. The fight continues to protect the right to vote and make the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream a reality.I wholeheartedly agree. While candidates skewer one another through an endless campaign made even longer than usual, precious time is passing and nothing substantial is changing. We merely distract ourselves from the cold, hard facts: the war limps along, more people lack health care, jobs become more scarce, and the cost of living soars. Stock Markets Plunge Worldwide, an AP headline screams. Our own economic ‘downturn’ is having serious repercussions around the world. Japan’s stock exchange is at a new low --its worst performance since 1990 when the Japanese economy collapsed.
On the election front, legitimate candidates are being unfairly shut out of presidential debates by networks and the FCC. This undemocratic action limits the public’s ability to size up the field. And, our elections are hardly secure or fair. This Saturday, Democrats will conduct their primary in South Carolina. This past Saturday, the Republicans had theirs. Let’s see how it went in this paper-free, touch-screen state. John Gideon’s Daily Voting News reports,
Horry Co[unty] South Carolina is now reporting that they had more problems than reported on Saturday. It seems that not only could they not get 80% of the machines to start-up on Saturday morning but many of those same machines could not be turned-off when the polls closed. It seems that the internal clocks were set for the ES&S iVotronics to be closed-out next Saturday evening following the Democratic primary. Those machines had to be taken to the county election office and the clocks had to be changed. The county was still counting ballots late on Sunday. I had a reporter call me from one SC newspaper. He asked how I felt about this delay in getting the results out. My response was that quick and early results were for the media not for the voter. We want our votes counted accurately; not quickly. It is, in part, the media that has driven election officials to waste our tax money on the purchase of machines that give some result as quickly as possible upon poll closure. It may not be an accurate number but it is a number that can be reported. Tomorrow the Republican South Carolina primary will be forgotten as all eyes turn to the next primary and the next potential disaster ...If you truly want to honor Martin Luther King’s memory, consider getting involved in securing the vote. Voting consists of two essential parts: the right to cast our vote and the right to know that our vote was counted accurately. The first part is meaningless without the second. In a democracy, legitimate power comes only from the people. Electronic voting machines use proprietary software that we cannot examine and conduct the vote counting in secret, inside the machines, where we cannot go. The opaque nature of this system prevents us from knowing if our vote was counted accurately and so is inherently anti-democratic. Calling these elections fair is like putting lipstick on a pig. How do we know? We can't take anyone's word for it, be it vendor, election official, politician, or member of the press. We must see the evidence with our own eyes and evaluate it accordingly.
As Mark Adams, election reform lawyer/activist writes in What Would Martin Luther King Do?,
Dr. King stood up against injustice and stood up for our rights to control our government! What would he do today? Dr. King would be marching in the streets! He would not allow our votes to be counted in secret! He would not stand by while our power to control our government was taken away!
The story of the Exodus from Egypt was preserved for thousands of years by the simple but effective method of passing it down from one generation to the next. The story – and its people – survived because tradition was important to each link in that long human chain. Similarly, while Rev. King is sorely missed, his example can still show us the way. Let’s take his eloquence, passion, and commitment and channel them into our current struggle for social justice and peace. And where better to start than with regaining the integrity of our vote, the first step in taking back our country?
Special thanks to Paul Lehto.