We should have listened to King

January 21, 1991|By Jo Ann Robinson

ANNOUNCEMENTS from peace groups now outnumber the catalogs from mail order houses in my daily mail. I think about the prediction Martin Luther King Jr. made in 1967:

. . . Unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy, we will find ourselves organizing clergy-and-laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. We will be marching and attending rallies without end.

The daily newspaper devotes a major article to panhandlers, including tips on "What to say or do" when one asks for money. I hear King crying out:

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 comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

The barber who used to cut my son's hair is murdered. Soon after, a father of two children is gunned down in a parking lot that I walk past often. Twice in the next week I set out by foot on ordinary errands and become extraordinarily frightened by an on-rush of policemen with their guns drawn -- pursuing a holdup man in one case, a drug dealer in the other. And I remember the anguished pronouncement of King:

As I have walked among the desperate, angry young men in the ghettos of the North . . . I have told them that . . . [violence] would not solve their problems . . . But, they asked . . . if our nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and 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.

During a discussion on National Public Radio about the volunteer army, someone says that for young African-Americans the local military recruitment station is "the only place that is hiring." I think also of the inflated promises and surface glamour which entice students from lower economic levels to join ROTC in high school and college and of the complicity of educators in this. The result: African-Americans, who comprise about 12 percent of the U.S. population, are 30 percent of the U.S. troops in Operation Desert Storm. What excuse can we possibly offer for perpetuating this evil pattern which Dr. King indicted a quarter of a century ago:

. . . It became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.

An ugly gas mask, hiding a human face, peers into the TV camera during Thursday night's coverage of the war. The same report quotes figures on the number of body bags ordered for the war and describes preparations for moving current occupants of the local veterans' hospital to make room for war victims. I have just been reading a statement from the Fellowship of Reconciliation: "In the past the U.S. rejected out of hand a Third World proposal to eliminate all chemical weapons. As vice president, George Bush twice cast the deciding vote in the U.S. Senate against the adoption of treaties banning chemical weapons . . . The U.S. has introduced nuclear weapons to the Middle East . . . [and] has energetically participated in the massive arms trade [there]." Oh! Why can we not grasp and respond to King's call for a true revolution:

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just . . . This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love."

I will answer my mail, call Washington, rally, vigil, march, wear buttons, put up signs, pray and resist despair. If we remember nothing else King said, let us at least not forget his warning about the consequences of giving up:

If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Jo Ann Robinson teaches history at Morgan State University. The King quotations are from a speech he gave at Riverside Church in New York City April 4, 1967.

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