Beyond my amazement at King's eloquence, my immediate reaction was not so much to be inspired as to be puzzled, close to despair. After all, the slaying of this man of peace was answered not by a pledge to persevere in his legacy, but by furious uprisings in the slums of black America. The disenfranchised were avenging their dead leader by burning down the ghettos in which they felt themselves imprisoned and impoverished, using the fire this time to proclaim that the non-violence King had advocated was useless, that the only way to end inequity in this world was through the barrel of a gun, that the only way to make the powerful pay attention was to scare the hell out of them.
King's assassination, therefore, savagely brought up a question that was already bedeviling me -- and so many other activists -- in the late sixties: What was the best method to achieve radical change? Could we picture a rebellion in the way that Martin Luther King had envisioned it, without drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred, without treating our adversaries as they had treated us? Or did the road into the palace of justice and the bright day of brotherhood inevitably lead through fields of violence? Was violence truly the unavoidable midwife of revolution?
Martin Luther King and the Dream of a Revolutionary Chile
These were questions that, back in Chile, I would soon be forced to answer, not through cloudy theoretical musings, but while immersed in the day-to-day reality of history-in-the-making. I'm talking about the years after 1970 when Salvador Allende was elected Chile's president and we became the first country to try to build socialism through peaceful means. Allende's vision of social change, elaborated over decades of struggle and thought, was similar to King's, even though they came from very different political and cultural traditions.
Allende, for instance, was not at all religious and would not have agreed with King that physical force must be met with soul force. He favored instead the force of social organizing. At a time when many in Latin America were still dazzled by the armed struggle proposed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, however, it was Allende's singular accomplishment to imagine the two quests of our era to be inextricably connected: the quest by the dispossessed of this Earth for more democracy as well as civil freedoms, and the parallel quest for social justice and economic empowerment.
Unfortunately, it was Allende's fate to echo King's. Three years after King's death in Memphis, it was Allende's choice to die in the midst of a Washington-backed military coup against his democratic government in the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile.
Yes, on the first 9/11 -- September 11, 1973 -- almost 10 years to the day since King's "I have a dream" speech, Allende chose to die defending his own dream, promising us, in his last speech, that sooner, not later, ma's temprano que tarde, a day would come when the free men and women of Chile would walk through las amplias alamedas, the great avenues full of trees, toward a better society.
It was in the immediate aftermath of that terrible defeat, as we watched the powerful of Chile impose upon us the terror that we had not wanted to visit upon them, it was then, as our nonviolence was met with executions and torture and disappearances, it was only then, after that military coup, that I first began to seriously commune with Martin Luther King, that his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial came back to haunt me. It was as I left Chile and headed, with wife and child, into an exile lasting many years that King's voice and message began to filter fully, word by word, into my life.
If ever there were a situation where violence could be justified, it would have been against the military junta in Chile led by Augusto Pinochet. He and his generals had overthrown a constitutional government and were now murdering, torturing, imprisoning, and persecuting citizens whose radical sin had been to imagine a world where you would not need to massacre your opponents in order to allow the waters of justice to flow.
The Dogs of Mississippi and Valparaiso
And yet, very wisely, almost instinctively, the Chilean resistance embraced a different route: slowly, resolutely, dangerously taking over every possible inch of public space in the country, isolating the dictatorship inside and outside our nation, making Chile ungovernable through civil disobedience. It was not entirely different from the strategy that the civil rights movement had espoused in the United States; and, indeed, I never felt closer to Martin Luther King than during the 17 years it took us to free Chile of the dictatorship.
His words to the militants who thronged to Washington in 1963, demanding that they not lose faith, resonated with me, comforted my sad heart. He was speaking prophetically to me, to us, when he said, "I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells."
He was speaking to us, to me, when he thundered, "Some of you come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering." He understood that more difficult than going to your first protest was awakening the following morning and heading for the next protest, and then the one after, engaging, that is, in the daily grind of small acts that can lead to large and lethal consequences.
The sheriffs and dogs of Alabama and Mississippi were alive and well in the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso, and so was the spirit that had encouraged defenseless men, women, and children to be mowed down, beaten, bombed, harassed, and yet continue to confront their oppressors with the only weapons available to them: the suffering of their bodies and the conviction that nothing could make them turn back.
Like the blacks in the United States, so in Chile we sang in the streets of the cities that had been stolen from us. Not spirituals, for every land has its own songs. In Chile we sang, over and over, the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the hope that a day would come when all men would be brothers.
Why were we singing? To give ourselves courage, of course, but not only that. In Chile, we sang and stood against the hoses and tear gas and truncheons, because we knew that somebody else was watching. In this, we were also following in the media-savvy footsteps of Martin Luther King. After all, that mismatched confrontation between a police state and the people was being photographed or filmed and transmitted to other eyes. In the deep south of the United States, the audience was the majority of the American people; while in that other struggle years later in the deeper south of Chile, the daily spectacle of peaceful men and women being repressed by the agents of terror targeted national and international forces whose support Pinochet and his dependent third world dictatorship needed in order to survive.