"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."~~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
No, it's not the "I Have A Dream" speech most people associate with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and ceremoniously trot out every year as we commemorate his birthday. These words are from a King speech largely ignored by mainstream commentators who are content to pigeonhole him as a "slain civil rights leader," as though his Nobel Prize was awarded solely for his civil rights efforts.
It's a speech known very well to advocates of peace and social justice. It's an audacious, even dangerous speech which turned many former supporters against him after he gave it, and may even have accelerated the efforts of those who felt so threatened by this audacity that they murdered him a year after he delivered it. And it's a speech that has even more resonance for us today than it did more than 40 years ago, and not merely because we will see our first African-American President inaugurated five days after what would have been Dr. King's 80th birthday.
On April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assassination, King gave a speech -- "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" -- at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City. Clergy and Laity Concerned was one of many groups opposed to the Vietnam War. This powerful, enlightening speech contains passages which are strikingly, even eerily, more relevant to us today than when King first spoke them. Replace "Vietnam" with "Iraq and Afghanistan" and this speech is as timely as if it was given this morning. Anticipating and answering those who criticized him for speaking out against the illegal, unnecessary war on the people of Vietnam, he said:
"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... 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."
"This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers."
In his 1967 speech, citing such a U.S. foreign policy, even before the term 'blowback' was widely known, King said:
"It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken -- the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment."
"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the 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.
"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies...True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: 'This is not just.'"
"And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love... What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on. What has happened is that we have had it wrong and confused in our own country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience."
The "love" of which King speaks is not the sentimental, Hallmark-card variety. It is not a mushy, "bleeding-heart liberal" emotion. It is a very active verb. Its closest meaning in English is demonstrating "compassion" and "empathy" (not mere "sympathy"), two words which carry within them the meanings of putting oneself in the place of those who are suffering, of "feeling the way they feel", not just "feeling for them." Out of this compassion comes the realization not only of our literal as well as moral kinship, but of the need for justice or fairness for those suffering and oppressed, especially due to our values and our way of living. It is the basis of the Golden Rule as well as of our own Declaration of Independence.
We ignore, or choose to forget this full legacy, not only to our shame and peril, but to that of future generations.