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Monday, January 19, 2009

Reflections on Martin Luther King Day as Barack Obama Becomes President

Every year I have written a special essay on Martin Luther King Day. I usually pick a lesser known Martin Luther King speech to reflect on. At the MLK Dinner last Thursday, I heard an excerpt from the 1967 speech, "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam."

Dr. King has become so lionized in this country, that people often seem to forget that he was not non-threatening figure that he has now become. He was in his own day radical despite the fact that those on the more radical side felt he was too passive, those on the less confrontational side felt he was too radical.

Indeed, when Dr. King was killed in 1968, it was the heart of 1968 election where Richard Nixon was working hard to take away the south from the Democrats. Nixon was criticized heavily by his advisers and those on the right for the mere idea of going to Dr. King's funeral. If you wonder how much the world has changed in 40 years, ponder that for awhile. One of those who criticized him hardest was a young speech writer and adviser Patrick J. Buchanan.

The point illustrates where much of America was even in 1968.

The year before his death, on April 4, 1967, Dr. King broke his silence on Vietnam.

A few weeks later he delivered the speech from which I now excerpt. Frankly in many ways it could have been written today, as speech in opposition to the war in Iraq rather than the war in Vietnam:
"Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster. America has strayed to the far country of racism and militarism. The home that all too many Americans left was solidly structured idealistically; its pillars were solidly grounded in the insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage. All men are made in the image of God. All men are bothers. All men are created equal. Every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. Every man has rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the State--they are God-given. Out of one blood, God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. What a marvelous foundation for any home! What a glorious and healthy place to inhabit. But America's strayed away, and this unnatural excursion has brought only confusion and bewilderment. It has left hearts aching with guilt and minds distorted with irrationality.

It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home, America."

The notion that opposition means hate and that patriotism means unconditional support is a notion that has been rooted in the American psyche for a long time. I felt this issue most recently last Tuesday when my loyalty to Israel was challenged because I dared to question the Israeli Government. While I was not directly called a self-hater at the time, I may as well have been for I shared the views of someone who was.

What Dr. King understood was that the issue of racial equality was in fact deeply rooted in the issue of Vietnam. As he understood it went beyond simply race to class. For the very people who were dying in the jungles of Vietnam were those poor brothers and sisters who could not afford a college education to get a deferment.

Moreover, the cause of peace was inextricably linked to the cause of non-violent resistance. And here I criticize my more secular brothers and sisters who failed to recognize the role that faith played in the civil rights and peace movement. The very notion of passive resistence was deeply rooted in the bible and also the words and writing of Gandhi.

The idea of bearing witness, the idea of true love, the idea of loving one's enemy, of turning the other cheek, of turning one's enemy through love rather than through hate and violence. It was a very powerful message.

Congressman John Lewis came under criticism this past election when he compared the rhetoric of some on the right who were suggesting that Obama was a terrorist to that of Geoge Wallace. John Lewis is an American hero as few people probably truly realize. On the bridge to Selma, he was beaten within a few inches of his life.

In David Halberstam's book, "The Children" which chronicles Lewis among other civil rights leaders, one of the most powerful moments came when one of Lewis' chief tormentors in Selma came for a visit to Lewis' Congressional Office to apologize for his actions from 20 years prior. His heart had been turned, not through violence, not through hate, but through the love and convictions of the civil rights movement.

It is that conviction and sacrifice that have enabled the world that we see today.

As King said shortly before his death:
"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
The parallels have always intrigued historians and observers. For in the bible, when the Jews were led by Moses, Moses himself never saw the promised land. But without his contributions, the Jews would never have made it.

Tomorrow Barack Obama fulfills the dream of a lifetime that most people never believed that they would see. Just over 40 years from the day that Martin Luther King Jr was killed, he will become the first African American Preisdent of this country.

As we all recognize this will not make the problems of the last forty years vanish and more than it will make the problems of inequality, hatred, and violence of the last 400 years go away.

However, President Obama ran on a platform of both change and hope. Tomorrow he gives us exactly that hope for change. He has long days ahead of him. It will be a difficult struggle. And like Dr. King he may not lead us into the promised land. He may merely open the gates to the new world for us and it will be up to us to walk through them.

But stop for a second. Throw down your ideology, preconceived notions, and your prejudices. Stop and reflect. Look at the crowds of people that gathered to watch Obama's train route. Look at the faces in those crowds. You do not see white America reflected in those faces. You do not see Black America. You do not see blue America. You do not see red America. You truly see the United States of America reflected in those crowds. You see people that for the first time truly believe. You see young black men who can look into their eyes of their newborn children who believe for the first time in their lives that they can be whatever they want to be in life. You see the new hope of a generation, of a people, and of a nation. You see people coming together to give back service to their country. You see the sons and daughters of former slaves casting their votes with the sons and daughters of former slaveholders. You see in essence Martin's dream from 1963.

There is still much to do in this country that still remains divided along all sorts of lines and cleavages and the perceptions of differences.

I close as Lincoln closed from his First Inaugural Address, that ironically Obama quoted from in his victory speech on November 4, 2008:
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
---David M. Greenwald reporting