The Path of Democracy or Militarism

Random Lengths News | January 19, 2006
I am reminded this week of both the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr. As the nation celebrates his birthday, I wonder just how much different America would be if he had not been shot down at the hands of an assassin at the height of his impassioned crusade to make this nation live up to its fundamental creed of liberty for all. On April 4, 1968, the day he was killed (with the help of our government), I was on a special tour in Washington DC to learn about how our government worked. We were a group of high school students set to visit Congress the next day, but the American Friends Service Committee, which set up the tour had planned an integrated dance party for the teenagers from all over the country who had just arrived in the capital. The news of King’s death came late that day, just as the party was getting underway and everything just stopped. There was this fearful silence and I remember feeling like I had been sucker-punched in the gut, then there were people crying, “No, not now!” America had just killed its prophet of the dream.

The party went on, continued in a somber tone under the watchful eyes of our chaperones, leery of what might and did occur outside of this hamlet of racial tolerance, on the streets of our nation’s capital and in many places across the country. That night the capital’s black ghetto, which surrounded the marbled halls and Greek columns of Capital Hill, erupted in violence. The Capital dome and the White House were silhouetted by the glow of flames and the anger of people in the streets. The National Guard was called out, gunfire was heard in the darkness and the nation spent a fitful night dealing with the nightmare of this betrayal.

The morning after exposed the mayhem of the night, the smell of burning still fresh in the air, I strolled out on the National Mall to find machine guns, sandbags and barbed wire lining the Capital steps. Armored personnel carriers and tanks guarded the Supreme Court. I had come to see our government in action and here it was in the cold gray light of morning for the whole world to see. I was never quite the same after that trip to the Capital, nor have I ever viewed the struggle against those who hold power the same as I did before that time.

One year to the day before King’s assassination, he gave what in many respects, was his crowning speech of his career, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at the Riverside Church in New York City. In it, he eloquently outlines the seven reasons why he could no longer remain silent in opposition to “the madness of Vietnam” and how the road from Montgomery Alabama led him to this place of dissent, “that I must be true to my conviction.” Many today believe that it was this speech opposing that war that sealed his fate a year later, as it connected the dots between poverty and war, racial segregation and power, and between the hypocrisy of our government’s actions and the promise of our Constitutional rights.

His words like prophecy reminds, “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore the sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing…. concerned committees for the next generation. They will be in Guatemala and Peru, …Thailand and Cambodia, …Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.”

Needless to say, there has not been a profound change. We have forgotten these words—if, indeed we ever heard them in the first place—and the bitter lessons from which they come. And so, predictably—just as King predicted—we have once again found ourselves, our nation, involved in yet another war so similar that it is profoundly evident that nothing has changed in the intervening years, except for the place names and the names of the “enemy.”

In his speech, King quotes the Buddhist leaders of Vietnam from that era, but this could have been written yesterday by Muslims, simply substituting ‘Iraqis’ for ‘Vietnamese’—“Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts 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.”

Today this is equally true, as we find our government reverting to its old ways of domestic spying and infiltrating dissent groups at home, and engaging in torture and prisoner abuse abroad. These actions bring directly into focus the divergent paths of democracy and militarism. Do you suppose we will ever learn?

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Founded in 1979 as a counterbalance to the conservative, corporate- owned daily paper, Random Lengths News draws on the rich history of the Los Angeles Harbor Area. The name harkens back to a description of the lumber that used to...
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