Dr. King's Antiwar Legacy
By William D. Hartung
Celebrations of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often center on the universalist rhetoric of his "I Have a Dream" speech and its call for a nation in which the founding promise of equal treatment for all will be fulfilled; a world in which "justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a might stream."
But Dr. King did far more than sound the call for freedom and justice. He took specific and often-controversial actions designed to make those goals a reality. One example of many in which Dr. King had the courage and conviction to buck the tides of conventional wisdom was his decision to come out publicly and forcefully against the war in Vietnam. He did so at an historic speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. Up until that point the position of political and media elites had been that the goals of the civil rights movement should be separate and distinct from the goals of the peace movement.
Indeed, as Taylor Branch notes in the third volume of his history of the King years, At Canaan's Edge, even many members of Dr. King's own inner circle urged him to avoid taking a highly visible public stance against the war in Vietnam. The reasons given ranged from the fear that it would destroy any chance of future cooperation with President Johnson on civil rights issues to that it would alienate the larger public upon whose support further progress on civil rights depended.
King addressed the issue of the relationship between the struggles for peace and civil rights in his Riverside Church speech. He began the speech by addressing the criticisms of those who suggested that it was not his "place" to speak out against the war:
""Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people," they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known my commitment, my calling or me. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."
King then proceeded to enumerate the major reasons he was coming out in opposition to the war in Vietnam. They are impossible to give justice to in a short essay - it is necessary to read the speech itself to fully comprehend King's visionary understanding of the links among what he described as "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism" that stand in the way of justice and peace in the United States and around the world. King's statement is a refreshing and inspiring alternative to the hateful rhetoric that has played far too large a role in our national political debate in general, and in this year's presidential campaign in particular.
I will address just one of Dr. King's major points. He argued that the war in Vietnam had eviscerated that era's antipoverty program "as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war." He asserted that America would "never invest the necessary funds and energies" in fighting poverty "so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube."
Sadly, King's point about the diversion of resources still holds true. There is no one large conflict like Vietnam consuming funds, skills and energy. There are multiple conflicts, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and beyond.
But spending on active conflicts is just the tip of the iceberg - the bulk of the $600 billion-plus that the Pentagon receives goes to fund dangerous and unnecessary weapon systems, including a new generation of nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines; and to shore up a wasteful, self-perpetuating bureaucracy that has little to do with the actual defense of the nation. The result is that more than 50 cents of every dollar of discretionary spending in the federal budget goes to the Pentagon rather than to investments in jobs, education, infrastructure, environmental protection or other constructive purposes. If we are to have any chance of addressing the challenges of the 21st century, this skewed distribution of resources needs to change.
This raises the question of how King's views on war and peace would be received today. In recent years the political debate in Washington has been dominated by calls for reductions in the deficit driven by decreases in spending, not increases in revenue. This paradigm seems to leave no room for using government as a tool for reducing poverty and inequality. But as Bernie Sanders' campaign for president has demonstrated, there is an appetite among a growing cohort of Americans, particularly younger Americans, for a more active government that invests in health care, education, infrastructure and job creation. Sanders focuses on Wall Street and the "billionaire class," but his critique is equally relevant to the corporate profiteering and influence peddling that characterize the military-industrial complex.
And the movements against police violence and for immigration reform have recognized the role of corporate money in promoting everything from voter suppression laws to privatized prisons and detention centers that wring profits from the plight of prisoners and undocumented immigrants. None of this is to suggest that the participants in these emerging political movements will put aside their own urgent tasks in favor of a traditional peace agenda, but rather that there are forces at work in the body politic that may eventually spark new synergies that will make the a reordering of federal priorities a genuine possibility.
King's Riverside Church speech has not been forgotten. At an amazing event entitled #MLKNow, held at Riverside church this afternoon (January 18th), actors, artists and activists read the words of Dr. King and his contemporaries and did performances and had conversations that put King's values and commitments in today's context. One of the most moving moments among many at the event was a reading by Lin Manuel Miranda, the author and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton, of excerpts from King's April 1967 Riverside Church speech. The reading - and the reception it received -- is one sign that King's perspectives on war and peace are alive and well, nearly 50 years later. And that's a good thing. King's 1967 speech has much to teach us as we seek to overcome violence and injustice in our own times.