Martin Luther King Jr.: We Are Killing the Dream

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Rev. John Whitehead

By John W. Whitehead

“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.”— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now-historic “I Have a Dream” speech which envisioned a world in which blacks and white would work together in harmony for the cause of freedom. Four years later, just prior to his assassination, King’s dream had expanded beyond issues of equality to encompass broader concerns about the destructiveness of war, poverty and materialism—and it is this dream that is not being realized today.

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Just consider: Since 2001, more than $1 trillion has been spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time that taxpayer dollars are being used to fuel the war machine, 20% of children and 23% of the elderly live in poverty. A 2009 study estimates that 3.5 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of hunger in the U.S. And in terms of race relations and inequality, while we have made progress in some areas, we are severely deficient in others. For example, having a black president does not seem to have improved conditions for the majority of blacks in America. Black household income is roughly 61% of white household income, a five percent improvement from what it was in 1969. Although African-Americans account for only 12% of the population, they make up 44% of the nation’s prison population. Unlike the national unemployment average of 10%, joblessness among blacks is closer to 16% and a staggering 34.5% for young black men. And with the housing market tanking, some of the highest foreclosure rates have been in communities with large black populations.

Clearly, while those claiming to honor King’s legacy pay lip service to his life and the cause for which he died, they have done little to combat the evils about which King spoke and opposed so passionately. Instead, they’re busy bickering, sniping and trying to score political points off their adversaries. A prime example is the recent ruckus stirred up by Fox News host Glenn Beck’s decision to hold a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In response to Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, which is co-sponsored by the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and will feature war hawk Sarah Palin, civil rights activist Al Sharpton and others are planning to unveil a four-story monument to King in conjunction with counter-marches and demonstrations to “reclaim the dream.”

It is telling that these disparate groups of people, both claiming to honor King, are attacking one another. Yet this is where both Beck and Sharpton seem to be missing the point: war rallies and monuments do little to honor King’s legacy. Indeed, those truly wanting to honor King’s memory would do better to take part in a peace march or go work in a soup kitchen. Or if you need inspiration from the man himself, read King’s “Silence Is Betrayal” speech, in which he directly attacked the war policy of the American government, especially in regards to the Vietnam War.

Delivered by King at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967—exactly one year before he was assassinated—the speech was condemned by many black and white leaders, as well as major publications such as Time and the Washington Post. Although many of his prior supporters deserted him for his remarks, King was resolute in his convictions, and his stance and speech proved to be prophetic.

Forty-three years later, King’s remarks remain painfully relevant to American policies today. In fact, if you were to replace King’s references to the Vietnam War and communism with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and terrorism, you would find that very little has changed in the intervening years. The following is an excerpt from this historic speech. It can be read in its entirety at www.rutherford.org.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. 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.

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries…. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft-misunderstood and misinterpreted concept—so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force—has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is now available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org


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