Time to dust off Dr. King and listen to his message
"Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence." — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964
As the sun rises on the third Monday of every year we dutifully unlock the attic door and pull out Dr. King. We dust him off, straighten his tie. Then, as the sun begins to set, we tote him back to the attic, turn off the light and lock the door.
Problem is, Dr. King does not fit in the attic. That we can ignore the poor fit during a time of war is a testament to our powers of self-delusion. We paint his name on road signs, but refuse to see where those roads lead.
Dr. King refuses to cooperate with our delusion. He begged us not to attack Iraq, though he called it North Vietnam. He cried for the maimed and dead, both foreign and American.
"Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964
Our effort to squeeze Dr. King's teachings into the attic requires us to distort those teachings. As he himself recognized in 1967, his advocacy for nonviolence was all or nothing. He could not reject violence as a reaction to racial oppression while remaining silent as his country reacted with violence to North Vietnamese aggression.
"I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government." — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964
Dr. King's message addressed all conflict, be it neighbor against neighbor, black against white, Christian against Communist or American against Iraqi.
It may be that Dr. King made a mistake, that his efforts to keep the United States out of Vietnam were misguided and that his message, as applied to Iraq, is errant as well. He deserves our attention, our honest rejection or acceptance of his words, even if he does not deserve our obedience.
By treating Dr. King's message as a curio from another time, a quaint irrelevancy, we dishonor him and shame ourselves.
"When I see the unwillingness of our government to create the atmosphere for a negotiated settlement of this awful conflict by halting bombings in the North and agreeing unequivocally to talk with the Vietcong, I tremble for our world.... The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours." — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967