Monday, January 15, 2018

There's Martin Luther King's dream. Then there's his American reality principle

Martin Luther King's finest hour may have come when he took a stand against the Vietnam War, breaking with the president with whom he'd partnered to pass epochal civil rights legislation.

Returning to the speech in which King took that stand, I find myself taking a weird kind of solace in his clearheaded denunciation of the violence that tore at two societies. It's a reminder, in the Trump era, that American betrayal of American ideals is continual, that backlash is continual, that mass violence inflicted on foreign populations is continual, and systemic injustice inflicted on minorities at home is continuous.

Why does that reminder offer solace?  Because along with the failure, success has also been continual: we have recovered from, and partially redressed, so many past self-inflicted wounds. Somehow, this account of how the triumphs of the civil rights movement turned to ashes reminds also that there was a residue of progress -- and also some lessons learned from Vietnam that held in some measure for 20-30 years.

Here is the core indictment in King's speech against the war delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967:

There is...a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, and new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube. And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hope of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their brothers, and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with a cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room. So we watch them in brutal solidarity, burning the huts of a poor village. But we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta. Now, I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years--especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, "So what about Vietnam?" They ask 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 first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
Obama's narrative for America was one of nonlinear progress: three steps forward, two steps back -- or maybe his seductive optimism cast it more as three steps forward, one step back. King is colder. Obama's favorite trope was the quest for a more perfect union -- never perfected, always perfecting. King's writings and speeches suggest a much sharper contrast between American ideals and American reality -- his stance is more that of a bankrupt's creditor, determined to squeeze some partial payment.* That's kind of bracing in the time of Trump.

* Update, 1/16: working from memory there. In 1963 if not in 1967, King was a bit more optimistic about "payment":
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice

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