Martin Luther King Jr., was a controversial figure in his time. His sermons on racial equality turned into sermons on human equality, and his weapon against the hatred in the world was love. So why are the simple concepts of peace, love, and unity still so radical in America?
It’s not that these concepts died with him. In fact, they marched on stronger than ever, uplifted by the civil rights activists he’d empowered and the fact that, with time, comes inevitable change.
Make no mistake: we are a different society today, one where racial, gender, and other minorities experience more legislative equality than ever before. Yet we are still a nation at war.
We are also a nation who uses this foreign war to poison local waters. To cover our racism and xenophobia with a sinister veil of “America First,” and to meet violence with more violence. My generation doesn’t know an America without war. It’s so baked into our climate that we sometimes forget — forget that there’s kids with dead parents, parents with dead kids, and families with both.
“War is a poor chisel to carve out tomorrow.” King’s widowed wife, Coretta Scott King, echoed this statement in 2003, at the start of the Iraq War. It was first said over half a century ago.
When we preach these words to our children, how can we not call ourselves hypocrites in the same breath?
The Rise of MLK
King didn’t invent the concepts of civil disobedience or nonviolent resistance, but he championed them. He was inspired by civil rights activist Nelson Mandela, as well as his beliefs as a Christian.
Originally, King’s main focus was combating racial inequality in the U.S. — especially in the South, where Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation. He worked with groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to organize protests and bring justice to the black community.
One of these protests was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. King represented the SCLC, which was one of six major civil rights groups to organize the event. While the march was intended to decry the actions of the federal government — for failing to pass key legislation to help the civil rights movement — it was shifted after President Kennedy agreed to support it.
Instead, the march’s organizers made several demands: civil rights legislation, racially diverse schools, protection against police brutality, and a $2 federal minimum wage ($17 today), among other things. Almost a quarter million people showed up — the biggest protest of its time. And King delivered the speech that would rocket him into national fame.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.”
MLK and War
The March on Washington was, by and large, a success. It fostered a working relationship between King and the government, and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
After that day in 1963, King continued the fight for racial justice. It wasn’t until 1967 that this fight extended to the Vietnam War. Previously, King had approved of the Johnson administration; supporting the president’s vision for a “Great Society” that included Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start programs. But King could not support his actions in war.
On April 4, 1967, King delivered another famous speech called “Beyond Vietnam.” He began by reading aloud a mission statement.
“I found myself in full accord when I read (the statement’s) opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal,’” he said, speaking to a crowd of 3,000 people at Riverside Baptist Church in New York City.
“…I knew that 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: my own government.”
King’s voice was firm in his resentment for the war. He highlighted the link between the civil rights movement and peace movements, and declared that the U.S. should stop bombing Vietnam and form a truce.
Furthermore, he believed that U.S. intervention in Vietnam was essentially imperialism, and that funding for the war left important social programs in America high and dry.
“So 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,” he said.
Many have said that this speech was what ultimately led to King’s assassination. “Beyond Vietnam” was not well received; both The New York Times and The Washington Post heavily criticized it, and many white Americans who had previously liked King were furious that he was involving himself in matters of war. His relationship with the Johnson administration deteriorated.
But King stood by these words until his death, exactly one year after he spoke them.
MLK Quotes About War
“The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.”
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
“If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”
“We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
“I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.”
The War Today
King may have been talking about the Vietnam War, but it’s not so different from the war today.
When I interviewed ex-Army Ranger Steven Elliott back in June, he drew a parallel between the two.
“It’s a slow-rolling version of Vietnam,” he said.
“We’ve managed to send almost exactly as many people in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan in 18 years as we did to Vietnam in eight — almost three million people. What do we have to show for this?”
Well, it’s pretty clear what we have to show for it. Nearly 4,500 American soldiers are dead, along with countless innocent civilians from the region. Our relationships with Middle Eastern governments are precarious or downright hostile. And many of their citizens hate us: They hate us because, like my generation, all they have ever known is war. And, in their view, it’s America that’s perpetrating it.
We came out of 9/11 with so much hatred and anger — and rightfully so. But we sought revenge without a clear vision of its implications. Over 50 years after MLK, it’s time to heed his words. It’s time for us to end an era of war and violence, and save future generations from its destructive consequences.