Our friends over at Radical Discipleship are hosting a Lenten journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech. Last autumn I was asked to make a contribution and it was posted yesterday.
Led Down the Path of Protest and Dissent
By Rose Marie Berger, a senior associate editor at Sojourners magazine
Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.–Martin Luther King Jr
Between the first and second sentence of this paragraph, Brother Martin fully entered into his “vocation of agony.”
Between these two–the first, where he holds America accountable to the ideals of her founding and the second, where he begins his sharpest theological critique to date–King “sets his face like flint” (Luke 9:51; Isaiah 50:7) toward the center of military empire: Washington, D.C.
The Riverside speech launches the next phase of King’s ministry. Now he will address the mechanism of empire–not just its bitter fruits. Now he will hold America accountable not only to her founding ideals but to God.
In that space between “the present war” and “America’s soul,” an assassin snicked his soft-nosed bullet into a 30-06 rifle.
King names America as “Hope-Destroyer;” Vietnam is what the Prophet Jeremiah calls a “high place of Baal, to burn their sons in the fire for burnt-offerings” (19:5). … [read the rest at Radical Discipleship]
On March 25, 1965, Martin Luther King gave a speech in Montgomery, Alabama, at the conclusion of the bloody warfare that was the “Selma to Montgomery” march.
As we hear new voices white nationalism during this election season, I recall Dr. King’s words. For Christians, this season of “wolves” requires that we be “shrewd as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. (Listen to him) That is what was known as the Populist Movement. (Speak, sir) The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses (Yes, sir) and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses (Yeah) into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.
To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. (Right) I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, (Yes) thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. (Yes, sir) And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.
If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. (Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir)
Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike (Uh huh) resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; (Yes, sir) they segregated southern churches from Christianity (Yes, sir); they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; (Yes, sir) and they segregated the Negro from everything. (Yes, sir) That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality. (Yes, sir)–Martin Luther King Jr.
“Tawakkol Karman sat in front of her laptop, her Facebook page open, planning the next youth demonstration. Nearby were framed photos of her idols: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These days, though, Karman is most inspired by her peers. ‘Look at Egypt,’ she said with pride. ‘We will win.'”
When I read this in Sudarsan Raghavan‘s Washington Post article yesterday on Yemen’s women activists, I was reminded that America’s very best export is the civil rights movement.
There is an intellectual and spiritual lineage from the 20th century that is being played out on the streets of Cairo, Sanaa, Riyad, and elsewhere today.
In the 1850s, Russian aristocrat Leo Tolstoy became disgusted with violence after doing tours of duty in Chechnya and after seeing a public execution in Paris. His conversion toward nonviolence and Christianity led him to write The Kingdom of God Is Within You (published in 1894).
In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to the Hindoo laying out a plan for a massive nonviolent civil resistance campaign to free India from British imperialism. The letter fell into the hands of Mohandas Gandhi who was working as a lawyer in South Africa at the time and in the beginnings of becoming an activist. This prompted an exchange of letter between the two that was foundational for Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy. Gandhi listed Tolstoy’s seminal work The Kingdom of God is Within You as one of the top three influences on his life. He called Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced.”
Less than 10 years after Gandhi was assassinated, a young American conscientious objector named James Lawson went as a Methodist missionary to Nagpur, India, where he studied satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence resistance that Mohandas Gandhi and his followers had developed.
In 1955, Lawson returned to the United States and was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr., who had also studied Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance. King told Lawson to come South, telling him “Come now. We don’t have anyone like you down there.” Lawson began implementing large-scale strategic nonviolent civil resistance training that was deeply rooted in Christian faith and spiritual principles. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States became one the most massive civil resistance movements in U.S. history.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, South African freedom leader Nelson Mandela was entering his fourth year of his life-sentence for “sabotage.” It took awhile for the news of King’s murder to reach Mandela in prison. Over the course of his 27 years in prison, Mandela studied deeply the work of Gandhi and King. Mandela was uncertain that the tactics of either would work in the South African context.
But the church leaders leading South African freedom movement outside of prison – particularly Archbishop Desmond Tutu – were highly motivated by both Gandhi and King. South Africa’s freedom struggle became known for taking the power of song to the streets. It became an image iconic of the freedom movement to hear South African children singing “We Shall Overcome” – an anthem of the American civil rights movement – and dancing the Toyi-toyi.
Thirty-one years after being imprisoned, Mandela was elected president of a free South Africa. Coretta Scott King was in the audience for Mandela’s acceptance speech as the new president. He looked at her and said: “This is one of the most important moments in the history of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy–pride in the ordinary humble people of this country. You have shown such a calm patient determination to reclaim this country as your own, and now with joy we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops–Free at last! Free at last!” Mandela quoted the famous lines from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech.
Somewhere in Yemen today, Tawakkol Karman is sitting in front of her laptop. She’s received death threats. She fears for the life of her three children. And she is determined to shatter perceptions of women in Yemen’s conservative society (and around the world), while emboldening a new generation of Yemenis to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 30-year grip on his country.
Inspired by civil resistance in Tunisia and Egypt, Karman said upon her release from detention, “We will continue this struggle and the Jasmine Revolution until the removal of this corrupt system that looted the wealth of the Yemenis” Karman spoke these words to hundreds of protesters who were demanding the release of other detainees.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with her are Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. They’ve all been where she is now. They are cheering her on. And so are we.
Douglass’ investigation into the secret papers finally released during the Clinton era begin to uncover a deadly “family pattern” of behavior in the highest levels of political power. Now, Douglass has written an important article for Tikkun magazine that looks at how the pattern is being repeated again between President Obama, Gen. Petraeus, and Afghanistan.
Below is Part 8: King’s Global, Nonviolent Vision
Martin Luther King Jr. said in his last testament, Trumpet of Conscience, a little book published after his death: “Can a nonviolent, direct-action movement find application on the international level, to confront economic and political problems? I believe it can. It is clear to me that the next stage of the movement is to become international.”
King envisioned an international movement of massive, nonviolent civil disobedience, bringing the business of London, Paris, Washington, and Ottawa to a halt until such centers of autocracy addressed the real questions of democracy. He said we needed to shut down our marketplaces by nonviolent action until business as usual was opened up to the needs of us all, beginning with the poorest, most exploited people on earth. The way our greatest prophet addressed the military-industrial complex was to think and act beyond it.
That is why he planned the Poor People’s Campaign for Washington. He was initiating it in Memphis in April 1968, supporting the sanitation workers’ strike there, when he was shot to death. He wanted all those who had nothing to lose to come together in D.C. that spring and summer — however long it would take — to shut down the government by nonviolent resistance until it agreed to shut down poverty and war. Martin Luther King Jr. was saying that Washington and Wall Street did not have the final say. There was — and is — a world out there, from the heartland of the USA to the heartbeat of the Congo, from those suffering in Appalachia to those struggling in the Amazon. If we are willing to struggle, suffer, and die together nonviolently, anything is possible for our world. King’s global, nonviolent vision is waiting to be realized if we’re willing to carry it out, paying the price just as he did.
King, like the prophets before him, knew the towering powers that overwhelm us when we think small, are themselves small-time. He reminded us that our Pentagon generals and Wall Street barons are not in ultimate charge of reality any more than we as individuals are. “The arc of the universe,” he said, “bends toward justice.”
So let’s not give up on our brother, Barack Obama, or on ourselves. And let’s not give up on our brothers and sisters in the Pentagon and on Wall Street. Nonviolence is the most powerful force in existence. We can all become part of its movement.–James Douglass, from JFK, Obama, and the Unspeakable
This bill, among other things, requires local law enforcement to check an individual’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that said individual is undocumented. Another provision of SB 1070 requires immigrants to carry papers denoting citizenship at all times while in the state.
As the action heats up in Arizona, we’ve got a “teachable moment” about what nonviolent direct action looks like when taken directly against an unjust law — as opposed to symbolic civil disobedience that often breaks a smaller law to highlight the injustice of a larger situation.
Will Travers’ article A Rare Opportunity for Direct Civil Disobedience in Arizona provides an excellent outline for this conversation. Will’s a scholar of nonviolence with a degree from the University of Michigan. He works with the NYC-based band/nonprofit, Lokashakti, promoting peace and social justice through collective nonviolent action. Here’s an excerpt:
… Not since the end of the draft in 1973 has there been a law in the United States that seems to render itself so well to direct civil disobedience. Arizona SB 1070 requires non-citizens to keep registration documents on them at all times and forces police officers to inquire about immigration status during any kind of arrest or routine stop if they encounter “reasonable suspicion” that the person might be in the country illegally. In addition, the new law gives police leeway to arrest someone solely on the basis of there being probable cause that they may be undocumented, at which point they’re to be turned over directly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
This basically boils down to the police in Arizona having new license to stop anyone looking remotely Hispanic — for no other reason than that they look remotely Hispanic — demand papers from them, and take them into custody if satisfactory documents are not immediately produced. Predictably this has led some people, such as Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony, to draw parallels to the lives of those in Europe forced to live under the Nazi regime. Additionally — and this concerns all of us — the new Arizona law makes it a crime to “transport or move,” or “conceal, harbor or shield” undocumented immigrants, reminding me more of something out of the Fugitive Slave Acts from this country’s dark past. Against such blatantly unjust, potentially far-reaching legislation, at least we’re armed with a chance for everyone to participate in its direct disobedience, instead of just abandoning our undocumented brothers and sisters to their fate.
In a relatively short amount of time, Martin Luther King Jr. became somewhat of an expert on unjust laws. In a speech he delivered before the Fellowship of the Concerned in 1961, King defined an unjust law as “a code that the majority inflicts upon the minority, which that minority had no part in enacting or creating, because that minority had no right to vote in many instances.” Although close to 50 years old, this definition holds up in modern-day Arizona quite well. The undocumented minority, having virtually no recourse to its voice being heard, is at the mercy of the majority — in this case that of the Arizona Senate — 60 percent Republican and 100 percent white.
King places upon his definition one condition: that the law the minority is compelled to obey is not binding upon the majority. This indeed rings true again, as one would have a very hard time imagining members of Arizona’s white community consenting to being stopped because of their skin color, questioned by police, and immediately forced to prove their legal status under penalty of detention. On the necessity for civil disobedience when faced with such a law, King writes in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that:
[A]t first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
While it’s difficult for me to speculate as to exactly how this unjust law should best be disobeyed, the inspiring example is already there of the five students and community organizers who staged a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office in Tucson after the bill’s April signing. Remarkably enough, three of the five were undocumented and knowingly subjected themselves to possible deportation, finally undergoing arrest, then detention by ICE, before thankfully being released the next day. …