Oversimplification of King
Today is an opportunity to not only consider the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. to our understanding of race and racism in America, but to look past this simplification of his message and reflect on his other teachings, as well. These words will not be heard on television today, as ?I Have a Dream? speech repeats have drowned out all other issues including both his involvement in the antiwar movement and the Poor People?s Campaign. King?s message has been cut and sanitized. As citizens of the United States, and particularly as members of the Carnegie Mellon community, we have a responsibility to think critically how all of King?s arguments may still apply today.
On April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his first prominent attack on the United States involvement in Vietnam. His opposition to the war was already under criticism from some of his peers in the civil rights movement. The national media then, as it still does today, reviled his message. Time magazine called it ?demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi,? and The Washington Post stated that ?King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.? Civil rights had become an acceptable goal, but to call for peace was madness.
King?s words have a resonance that carry beyond their original context to reflect on the ongoing war in Iraq. As he explained: ?Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America?s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.?
As no-bid contracts and favors for oil companies continue to fuel the flames of the U.S. war in Iraq, we must agree with King that, ?We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for [the U.S.] must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.? This reflects on our current policy as well: Although Bush insists freedom and democracy are our goals, we have simultaneously become close to Pakistan, a military dictatorship. This blatant hypocrisy is not limited to our leaders but to everyone who is unwilling to confront the awful contradictions between our ideals of democracy and our willingness to collaborate with dictators.
Fortunately, reading Martin Luther King Jr. still leaves us with hope for change. While King?s strategies for tackling civil rights were not fruitful in his lifetime, eventually his tactics were successful, ending American involvement in the Vietnam War five years after his death. Concluding his speech, King insisted: ?Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now.... I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.?
When we celebrate Martin Luther King?s life and work today, we should celebrate everything he stood for.