Published on Wednesday, January 22, 2003 by the Boston Globe
The King They Still Won't Talk About
by Derrick Jackson
PRESIDENTS AND presidential hopefuls delivered a kitchen sink of a Martin Luther King Jr. over the weekend. Democratic candidates talked about King in the context of Trent Lott, Judge Charles Pickering, Michigan's affirmative action case, AIDS, criminal justice, schools, economic disparities, voting, the Confederate flag, and Africa.
Senator John Kerry of Masschusetts said, ''It's time for all of us to apply the same sense of consciousness, the same guts, the same determination, and the same impatience to change America for the better.'' Senator John Edwards of North Carolina said, ''Leadership is more than photo ops with black children.'' Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut called King a ''modern-day Moses.''
On the Republican side, President Bush, fresh from throwing bricks at African-Americans with his stance against affirmative action and his renomination of Pickering, the softie for a cross burner, found a forgiving black church in suburban Washington from which to speak in tongues, issuing such snoozers as, ''There is still a need for us to hear the words of Martin Luther King.''
By keeping things very black and very parochial (neither Kerry nor Gephardt reportedly spoke about affirmative action in Iowa last weekend), some of the universal and universally challenging words of King were easily passed over by Bush and trod over lightly by most of his potential Democratic rivals. All the issues they raised are important, but the chances of addressing any of them will dwindle precipitously if the nation launches a resource-draining war against Iraq. Bush is rushing toward it. The majority of the announced Democratic candidates, including Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, and Dick Gephardt, voted for Bush's war.
It is no surprise that none of them had the courage to quote the King who opposed the Vietnam War. Perhaps they cannot, because that is the King who risked bitter disfavor from the White House.
King spoke out against the war because he decided that ''silence is betrayal.'' He said he could not be silent as Vietnam drained resources from the antipoverty programs of President Johnson. He said he could not be silent over 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 he could no longer tolerate the hypocrisy of the America that wanted angry black men to put down their Molotov cocktails but unleashed untold violence on the Vietnamese.
''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 today - my own government,'' King said.
He also said: ''I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long, they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor...
''Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken - the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment. 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....
''This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane ... cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.... 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.''
When we see our presidential candidates quoting this King, then we know that they really share King's guts, determination, impatience. When this part of King becomes as much a part of the holiday as ''I Have a Dream,'' then we know that our leaders truly share his sense of consciousness.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company