A fierce advocate of pacifist path

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was more than a champion of civil rights. Often forgotten is his uncompromising, contrarian devotion to nonviolence.

January 09, 2000|By Colman McCarthy

WHEN AND IF enough money is raised, a design approved and enough earth bulldozed away, a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will be dedicated in a few years at the Tidal Basin in Washington. Early last month, the National Capital Planning Commission approved a 4-acre site that rests directly between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

The King memorial will include chiseled excerpts from his speeches and writings. But which words will be chosen? Which King will the memorial's visitors encounter?

Since King's death in 1968, his memory has been monopolized by those who see him only as a civil rights leader. Every January, around the time of the King holiday, many of the news media replay the "I Have A Dream" oration. It is also the time of year when politicians of all or no stripes portray King as a champion of integration who organized blacks to knock down Jim Crow. Even those who secretly do not share Brother King's dream, and are silent about racial equality most of the time, suddenly exercise their vocal chords by singing "We Shall Overcome." Undeniably, King, as Sen. Edward Kennedy said in a 1983 floor debate on creating a national holiday for the slain leader, "worked tirelessly to remove the stain of discrimination from our nation."

But King the integrationist is the tame, safe and sanitized King whom America feels comfortable with, except for fringe white supremacists and Confederate-flag wavers, who overtly favor racism.

Pushed aside -- dumped, really -- is the troublemaking King whose commitment to nonviolence and pacifism meant that he was much more than a civil rights leader.

King, a fiercely uncompromising critic of American militarism and the war in Vietnam, said in New York on April 4, 1967 --- exactly a year before his assassination -- that "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government."

Has that changed? The evidence says no. The same ethic of violence and the drive for world domination that sent U.S. soldiers to Vietnam also directed U.S. military personnel to kill people in Grenada, Libya, Panama, Somalia, the Sudan and Iraq during the 1980s and 1990s. Each is a nation of poor people, and people of color.

What would King say today about a U.S. foreign policy that's habitually directed at people of dark skin?

Will King's statement on the violence-purveying U.S. government be carved in stone at the Tidal Basin?

And will the designers be instructed to carve into stone King's 1967 assessment of the nation's spending habits? "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom."

According to the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, nearly 50 percent of the federal discretionary budget is for military programs. Congress lavishes on the Pentagon an average of $700 million a day, a sum three times more than what the Peace Corps gets in a year and twice the annual Americorps budget.

A government's values are revealed by where its money goes. If King's views on money make it into marble, perhaps they can be footnoted with his comment in 1968 when the House and Senate were doing what they are still doing, penny-pinching on social programs and splurging on the Pentagon: "The Congress is sick."

An entire generation of American students has gone through schools whose texts ignore the memorable antiwar thinking of King. In "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong," James Loewen of the University of Vermont examined the 12 most commonly used high school-level U.S. history textbooks. He reports that "King, the first major leader to come out against the [Vietnam] war, opposed it in his trademark cadences: `We have destroyed [Vietnam's] two most treasured institutions -- the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. . . . We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.' No textbook quotes King."

All the textbooks, for sure, carry excerpts from the "I Have a Dream" speech. After three decades of being sentimentalized into an historical relic mummified by the formaldehyde of nostalgia, King has been marginalized in ways that were never possible while he was around to defend himself. Near the end of his life, he summed up his mission: "Our only hope today lies in our ability to capture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism."

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