Friday, January 12, 2007

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Saving the Soul of America

This weekend, we pause to remember and honor Martin Luther King, Jr.

We remember his determination to make Americans understand the injustice of racial discrimination. We remember the marches he led--and we remember the police dogs, the fire hoses, the beatings.

We remember his “I Have Dream” speech, one of the great treasures of American oratory: “I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood."

But probably not one American in a hundred will remember another speech he made, exactly one year before he was assassinated. And that’s a shame, because the other speech shows that we have even more reason to honor King.

On its face, the speech he delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, was simply an eloquent plea against the war in Vietnam. King had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his work in the civil rights movement; now he expanded his work for peace by speaking out against the Vietnam War.

King explained that part of his opposition to the war rose from his growing concern with poverty in America. There had been a time in the early 1960s, he said, when poverty programs offered “a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white.” But King saw that hope dwindle as “Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube."

He opposed the war also because of the racial contradictions he saw: “We have been repeatedly faced with the 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 schools. We watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit."

He oposed the war because of connections he saw between the militancy of the Black Power movement and American actions in Southeast Asia. He could not condemn violence in the ghettos, he said, “without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."

But most important, he opposed the war because of the motto he and others had chosen for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957: “To save the soul of America.” For King, America’s soul was endangered not just by racism, but by poverty, greed, and the quest for international dominance and military glory. “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” he said. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

A year or so later, other Americans would begin to catch up with King’s anti-war sentiments. But in the spring of 1967, most didn’t welcome his outspoken opposition (King was one of the first prominent Americans to speak out). Life magazine labeled the speech a “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” But it was “time to break silence,” King said; he could be still no more on this matter.

With the Riverside Church speech, the civil rights leader moved beyond concerns of racial injustice. But the speech is more than just an outcry against the war. When King spoke of “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” he got at the very core of the American character; when he said we need to shift from a “thing-oriented” to a “person-oriented society,” he offered a broad critique of what American society had become in the middle third of the twentieth century.

For King, saving the soul of America meant not just freeing African Americans from the bondage of segregation; it also meant freeing the nation from the bondage of avarice, poverty, and what he called “the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long."

King’s death silenced a voice that had been so effective in the area of civil rights, and then for a brief moment promised to address even larger problems as he sought “to save the soul of America."

Note: This piece first appeared as a column in the Cartersville Daily Tribune News and other newspapers in January 2002.