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MLK Day: Dreams and nightmares

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In Martin Luther King Jr's most famous speech, he had a dream.

But in another of King's important addresses, he faced the depth of our nightmare.

We all know the famous words -- "I have a dream" -- delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

On this day that we mark with his name, all over this country, that speech will be played, as it should be. King articulated -- perhaps more eloquently than anyone had to that point -- the demand that the United States make good on the American dream, for all its citizens.

But on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, in a speech titled "Beyond Vietnam," King spoke just as eloquently of the nightmare that lies underneath that dream. In that speech to Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, King not only made a compelling case for ending the U.S. attack on Vietnam, but went beyond that to diagnose a failed society.

On this day that we mark with his name, we owe it to King -- and to ourselves -- to face that failure honestly.

This might sound crazy in a world in which the United States dominates as no nation has ever dominated. After all, we won the Cold War. We are the largest economy in the world. Our cultural products circulate everywhere. The world fears our military. We are the most affluent nation in the history of the world. And we have a black secretary of state. A failed society? The United States? To borrow from a younger generation, "We rule!"

Yes, we rule, sort of, for a time. But we also are a failed society, a society heading toward collapse. We might remember that nothing looks quite as invincible as a great army on the morning of its greatest defeat.

The majority of King's Riverside speech was dedicated to an analysis of the Vietnam War and an argument for a political settlement of that conflict. Although many wanted him to avoid the controversial subject of the war, King said he was moved "to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart," to go "beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history."

When he did that, King reached a difficult conclusion, that "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" was "my own government." He saw what imperial war does not only to the target, to those on whom the bombs fall, but also to the aggressor society: "If America's soul becomes totally poisoned," King said, "part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over."

We might pause to consider what that means for us today, as the United States fights another imperial war, this one in the Middle East. If we were to go beyond a "smooth patriotism" and let conscience guide us to a "firm dissent," what actions are required of us?

But I want to put aside for now the issue of wars, past and present, and speak of King's deeper analysis in that speech. He knew that simply condemning that war was "seductively tempting," but that his principles demanded that he "go on now to say something even more disturbing." King was blunt: "The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit," a condition that had left the United States "on the wrong side of a world revolution." He continued:

"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."

"our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men."

In short, Martin Luther King Jr. saw that the task of the United States was not simply to transcend racism. He saw racism as inextricably connected to militarism and materialism. And he saw a hyperpatriotic nationalism not as virtue but as a problem to be overcome.

So, we find ourselves today in an odd place: In a country in which we routinely repeat the phrase "God bless America" with no sense of shame; in which conventional politicians all clamor to be "tough" on national security and support bloated military budgets; in which the shopping mall is the real temple where people go to worship -- in that country, King is a hero. That means the King who condemned not only racism but nationalism, militarism, and materialism has to be pushed aside, forgotten -- "whitewashed," if you'll allow the term. King's radical political analysis and vision have to be rendered invisible if we are to name a holiday after him. After years of calling him a traitor and a troublemaker, white America is willing to allow King is to serve as the icon for a national quest for racial justice, but only so long as we don't actually listen to what he had to say or take it seriously.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)
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