"Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us."
- Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967
- Me, January 19, 2009
If the much sought-after hope was finally affirmed on November 4, 2008, then surely the much-needed change is now just a day away. As George W. Bush makes a final pillow fort in the Lincoln Bedroom, giggles nostalgically whilst making some farewell fart noises with his hands in the Polk Bathroom, and orders a final decrusted PB&J from the Taft Kitchen, the rest of the country - if not the whole world - is eagerly anticipating a welcome return to reality after a surely surreal eight years.
Much ado has been made of Inauguration Day this time around and for good reason. There is certainly something to celebrate tomorrow. Yes, this is history. A sing-along concert replete with celebrities and rockstars was held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on Sunday. The timing, location, and occasion made the unmistakable connection - loudly, clearly, and deliberately - between the inspiration, influence, eloquence, and eminence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the achievement, significance, confidence, and expectations of Barack Obama.
But while every media outlet, teary eyed pundit, sanctimonious blogger, and enthusiastic barista is all atingle with thoughts of peace, justice, and the first even moderately dark-skinned President, something seems amiss.
If Dr. King were still with us, if that April night in Memphis had been balmy rather than deadly, would he have supported Mr. Obama during his campaign for President? Would Dr. King approve of Barack's cabinet appointments, of his foreign policy advisers, of his bellicose posturing and aggressive threats, of his goals of increasing the size of the military, of "keeping all options on the table"?
On April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in Manhattan, exactly one year to the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" that resonates as loudly now as it did then - he dissented against America's imperial operations and foreign wars, challenged the citizens of the country he worked so hard to improve to protest the brutal actions of their government. He implored us all to stand with the oppressed, to side with the dispossessed, the exploited, the terrorized and the terrified, to challenge the hegemony and awesome power of the wealthy warmongers who send our sons and daughters to die for holographic ideologies, for dividends and assets, for, in King's own words, "the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long." This same arrogance, King said, explained the patronizing Western belief "that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them."
Dr. King, who devoted his life to the pursuit of justice, peace, civil and human rights, railed against America's then current aggression in Vietnam, accusing the US government of being "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and speaking out in the name of the "hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence." He made clear, though, that "the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit." He was right, of course, as this violence of ours has grown exponentially in the four decades since King's oration and the new Obama Administration shows no sign of changing course.
Is this a time of great optimism and hope or an opportunity to reaffirm and reorganize the struggle for true justice? Perhaps it is both. The stirring words of Dr. King are more relevant now than ever:
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.Much speculation has been made about President Obama's inauguration speech tomorrow. Will he emulate Lincoln and King, Kennedy and Roosevelt? Personally, I think he should pay special attention to this 1967 Riverside Church speech and repeat Dr. King's prescient and timely words, "It should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war."
Obama ran a campaign and won an election on the promise of ending the brutal occupation of Iraq. Yet, for the past four years in the US Senate, he has consistently voted to fund and prolong this very occupation. He has no intention of removing all US personnel from Iraq, reserves the right of the United States to strike "enemy combatants" any time and anywhere, and has said nothing of dismantling the more than 700 military bases the US maintains in over 100 foreign countries. In addition, he has promised to send 30,000 more US soldiers to Afghanistan, almost doubling the 32,000 troops that are already there. He has affirmed his approval of cross-border attacks in Pakistan. He threatens the governments and people of Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine with extreme violence for not cowing to American dominance and hegemony. This is no path to peace or reconciliation. So what will Obama bring to the world? He has spoken often of resurrecting the sullied reputation of this country, the theoretical reputation of goodness, virtue, and honor that this country has never truly stood for nor sought to impress upon others (least of all ourselves), except through the business end of a bayonet, M16, or Apache helicopter.
Dr. King asked us, "Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?"
This very year, the military budget of the United States will surpass $1 trillion, making it the largest ever recorded. This year, the federal government will spend more on nuclear weaponry than our primary education system. In this time of great economic crisis, where will the money required to care for the poor and the needy come from? Again, forty years ago, Dr. King warned us all, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
So, whose side will Obama be on? Will he restore the rule of law and respect for the Constitution? Will he close Gitmo and free its kidnapped hostages? Will he bring the criminals who approved torture and the monsters who committed it to justice, knowing full well that the prosecution of war crimes is not a partisan witch-hunt or political maneuvering? Will he invoke the phony "War On Terror" in order to continue a destructive imperial project? Will he continue to remain silent about the Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, the racist and dehumanizing apartheid system in the West Bank, and the murder of Oscar Grant by a police officer in Oakland, because these topics are politically inconvenient?
"This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers," King said.
And Obama should listen.
For the soldiers sent to kill and die for empire, King said, "We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved...The more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor."
He spoke against militarism and dehumanization, saying, "the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence" is that "it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition." Through empathy and reflection, King explained, we may begin "to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy."
We must make strong demands of our new President. We must demand that the era of American aggression come to an end. We must demand that our troops be immediately withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. We must be assured that our military will not attack or invade any other countries. We must demand that our government adhere to international law and act as an equal member of the world community. We must demand that our country respect our privacy and human rights. We must demand that we not be wire-tapped or spied upon. We must be assured that our country does not torture and that those who do will face the harshest of consequences. We must demand that our country provide its citizens with health care, education, and employment. We must demand an end to the $30 billion in financial aid and military support that this country will provide to Israel over the next decade, money that will be used to further subjugate the Palestinian people and destroy all possibility of a just and lasting peace.
Dr. King warned us that "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."
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama told the American people who had just elected him the 44th President of the United States, "This is your victory...This is our moment."
Forty-one years and seven months earlier, with the prescience of a prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr. continued:
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter -- but beautiful -- struggle for a new world...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.If Dr. King's beautiful dream, even in part, has been realized here in the United States, it is our duty here and now - and indeed it is the responsibility of the President we have elected, the leader who represents us all, the man we have selected to speak our words and wishes to the world - to know and to acknowledge that Americans are not the only ones with dreams. Afghans have dreams. Iraqis have dreams. Iranians have dreams. Lebanese have dreams. Syrians have dreams. Venezuelans, Cubans, and Bolivians have dreams. Today, as a result of the recent Israeli violence, there are now 1300 fewer Palestinian dreamers than there were three weeks ago.
These are dreams without violent invasions and foreign intervention, check points and separation walls, cluster bombs and white phosphorus, watchtowers and waterboarding, air strikes and Humvee convoys; these are dreams without threatening leaflets and bunker busters falling from the sky, without flak jackets and night-vision goggles, without bombed schools and broken levees, without FEMA trailers and refugee camps, without oil profits and no-bid contracts, without Blackwater and Halliburton, without body counts, death tolls, and collateral damage.
In his final book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, written in 1967, Dr. King writes: "Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten....America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness - justice."
This emphasis on justice may be lost on the incoming President, his retinue of Washington insiders, ardent Zionists, career militarists, and his coterie of armchair imperialists, bloated businessmen, and converted neoconservatives.
But the rebranding of American Empire will not signal the surrender of a global movement for peace and justice. Dr. King, as usual, spoke for all of us when he said, on that Spring day on the Upper West Side,
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now...I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted...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...These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.And we will protest.
We will dissent, we will disrupt.
We will object conscientiously and disobey civilly.
We will fight fiercely and revolt passionately with righteous indignation.
We will not be silent.
And we shall overcome...with or without you, Barack.