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To Honor MLK, Let's Speak Out Against War on Terrorism

19 January 2002 18 January 2002

"Only a refusal to hate or kill can put an end to the chain of violence in the world and lead us toward a community where men can live together without fear." Martin Luther King, Jr.

My favorite image of Martin Luther King shows him standing in front of his desk with his arms folded, his face beaming with that peaceful determination which served him so well as he guided the civil rights movement through a violent era. On the wall behind King, directly beside his head, as if the two men were contemplating one another, is a picture of the late revolutionary leader and pacifist, India's Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 at the age of 78. In his lifetime, he brought freedom to his Indian brothers and sisters in South Africa through the practice of satyagraha; and he liberated the crown jewel of the British empire, the Indian subcontinent, from colonial subjugation without firing a shot or spilling a drop of enemy blood.

King was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39. And while his legacy of success in the struggle for civil rights endures, one wonders what he might have accomplished in the subsequent 34 years. For King, like Gandhi, also lived within an empire - an American empire - whose commercial interests span the globe, backed by the most powerful military force in the history of the world.

And it is clear from King's speeches that he intended to do something about it.

"Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism," King declared on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his murder. By explicitly linking the civil rights and the anti-war movements, King's speech at the Riverside Church in New York City broke new ground and created powerful enemies.

King quoted President John F. Kennedy who declared in 1963: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." King concluded: "this is the role our nation has taken -- the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment."

And as President Bush boosts the military budget to Reagan-era levels despite the end of the cold war, King's warning against unchecked military spending takes on new relevance: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

In 1966, King wrote an article for Ebony magazine which bears on the present war on terrorism. "It goes without saying that people will protect their homes," King wrote. "But the mere protection of one's home and person... does not provide any positive approach to the fears and conditions which produce violence." King's own home had been bombed in 1955. "Many men wanted to retaliate," he wrote. But "had we become distracted by the question of my safety, we would have lost the moral offensive and sunk to the level of our oppressors."

This is precisely what anti-war activists are saying about the American response to Sept. 11. It is no wonder that groups like the War Resisters League ( and the Arizona Alliance for Peaceful Justice ( look to King for inspiration in the struggle against President Bush's new global war.

On the eve of his death, in his magnificent and prophetic speech, "I See the Promised Land," King spoke of the threats to him by "some of our sick white brothers." He refused to demonize his enemies. They were not "evil," as President Bush often says of terrorists. They were "sick." They were his "brothers."

If King were alive today, he would be considered a threat to homeland security. Brother Ashcroft would place him on a list of subversives. He would be vilified by the Limbaughs of the world. King was, after all, an intellectual. He was a pacifist. He was a man of the left.

He was also, in my view, the greatest American of the 20th century.

As we recall and honor his life, let's remember the totality of his work. Let us continue the struggles against "poverty, racism and militarism," and speak out against injustice and hatred and "America's New War."

As King said: "A time comes when silence is betrayal."

David L. Winkler © David L. Winkler

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