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January 17th, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: Ignoring the revolutionary legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Celebrations around the country mark the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday on January 18.  They are important tributes to a great and patriotic American.  Each year, most of them focus on the Martin Luther King of 1963–the one who argued persuasively for judging his children by the content of their character, rather than the color their skin.

This year, that line from Dr. King’s March on Washington speech has special poignancy.  Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has endured a week of controversy over some remarks he made during Barack Obama’s campaign for president.  Reid, who supported Obama’s candidacy, had commented privately that he believed Obama would be helped in his campaign because he is “light-skinned” and has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”  These reported remarks have ignited a fire-cracker response from Reid’s opponents, mostly Republicans, but it is difficult to fault the remarks on their face.

The color of one’s skin and the sound of one’s voice have always counted in America, and probably everywhere else.  Human nature seems to cause us to make distinctions between people on the basis of superficial characteristics.  Among African-Americans, Hispanics, and whites, the way one speaks and looks has always been significant.  It is not right to place such superficialities over the content of character, but it is the way of the world.  Reid pointed this out in a manner that was deemed inappropriate by some people.  Perhaps it was his use of the old, little-used word “Negro” that set people’s teeth on edge, but there was nothing factually incorrect about Reid’s observations.

When I go to East Texas, where I grew up, and run into natives of that region, I find myself sounding a lot like them.  When I am around my academic friends here in San Marcos or Austin, I tend to speak and sound like them, an ability I acquired during my seven years as a college and graduate school student.  In all our groupings, the color of one’s skin is a basis for categorizing, separating, and making usually meaningless distinctions.  From my experience and observations, dark-skinned Hispanics are often viewed in that community as inferior, whether it is among Cubans, Puerto Ricans, or Mexican-Americans.  The same is true in the African-American community.  Just read Langston Hughes, especially his “Jesse B. Semple” stories, if you have doubts.

The attack on Reid for his remarks, made about two years ago, is as much a denial of the reality of race relations as the focus on the Martin Luther King of 1963 is a denial of the profoundly revolutionary ideas and beliefs that he came to embody during the next five years of his life before he was assassinated while in Memphis to support the right of sanitation workers to organize themselves into unions to seek better wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Few mayors or other politicians or commemoration organizers will get past the Dr. King who was dreaming of an end to segregation and delve into the anti-war and economic populism that dominated the last years of Dr. King’s life.  Beginning with Dr. King’s Nobel Laureate speech in 1964, he framed the challenges of our world as “racial injustice, poverty, and war.”  I doubt that he would change the frame were he alive today, though his focus likely would be more on poverty and war.

After discussing the evil of racial injustice in his Nobel speech, Dr. King turned to his second evil–poverty–which he described as “a monstrous octopus, [that] projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist. This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves.”

Dr. King described the poor in America, which includes one out of every five people, saying they “are bound to a miserable culture of poverty. In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Dr. King then identified “the third great evil confronting our world”–militarism: “The best brains in the highly developed nations of the world are devoted to military technology. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has not been halted… So man’s proneness to engage in war is still a fact. But wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. … Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a ‘peace race’. If we have the will and determination to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.”

In discussing our ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war, Dr. King said, “the solution of these problems is in turn dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony. … We have inherited a big house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.”

In a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, Dr. King explained the affect of the Vietnam War by quoting one of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam:  “Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”

These words from over 42 years ago are as relevant today with respect to our War in Afghanistan as they were to our War in Vietnam.

Dr. King went on to say, “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. … We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that…the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. … 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.”

Dr. King called “for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation.”  He explained that this idea “is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed … as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”  He identified this kind of love as shared by “Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist” belief systems.

Dr. King concluded his Riverside speech by saying, “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”

Anyone who lived through the last decade should be able to recognize and acknowledge that it was hate and retaliation that led us into Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US (and what keeps us there is a pride that will not permit us to admit our mistake).

But few mayors or others will read these words from Dr. King on his national holiday.  Most people are far more comfortable dealing with his words about racial equality than with his warnings about the realities of today’s wars and today’s vast economic inequality.  It is the prophetic voice of Dr. King that we heard from 1964 to his death in 1968 that we should be heeding today.  We fail to listen to that voice at our peril.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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One thought on “Freethought San Marcos: Ignoring the revolutionary legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. hate and retaliation that led us into Afghanistan ? Actually I am fairly certain heroin is the only reason we are there seeing as that is the only way the CIA will be able to finance any of these fiasco wars we are still continuing for no reason. Democrats don’t like oil fueling wars but seem to have no problem using drug money.

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