Published on Sunday, January 23, 2005 by the Free-Lance Star (Fredericksburg, VA)
King Commemorations Are Our Way of Forgetting the Real Man
by Rick Mercier
MAYBE WE should just abolish the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
The official "remembrances" of the great social revolutionary have become an occasion to forget the man, a chance to pile cheap sentiment on top of the smoldering contradictions of our society.
In 1968, King lived in an America that wanted him dead; in 2005, we live in an America that wants to kill him again-this time by making a mockery of his legacy. And the powerful use his birthday as an opportunity to carry out this second political hit.
Monday's King commemoration sponsored by Georgetown University-at which President Bush was the featured speaker-was a grand exercise in the assassination of memory.
No sentient being can fail to recognize the rich irony of having Bush-who has waged a war of aggression in Iraq, who has highlighted his opposition to affirmative action on King's birthday, and who may owe his presidency to the disenfranchisement of black voters in 2000-speak at any event honoring the civil rights hero and champion of nonviolence.
Our self-proclaimed war president reminded us on Monday that "King loved America enough to confront its injustices, not compromising the truth and not fearing any man-and America loves him in return."
Nice words, but of course King was widely despised when he was alive-and he no doubt would be today by most of those who form Bush's political base. One can easily imagine how the right wing, perhaps with Karl Rove's help, would smear King if he were still alive and causing trouble.
Yet the most heartrending part of the Georgetown event was the honoring of Colin Powell for embodying King's ideals. I realize that, having grown up and started his career during the time of American apartheid, Powell endured tribulations that I, a white man, will never understand.
But I do understand King's analysis of American militarism and its relationship to social injustices. And I therefore understand that Powell is not Kingly.
Although Powell had serious misgivings about invading Iraq, he chose to be "the good soldier" and sell the war to the country and the world, instead of quitting in protest.
Contrast Powell's actions with the example King set. King took an emphatic stand against the Vietnam War, even though he risked alienating himself from many of his allies in the civil rights movement.
He acknowledged that it was not easy to come out against the war. "Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world," he said.
King lamented that many of his comrades in the civil rights movement could not comprehend why he would concern himself with the war. He explained that his antiwar activism was a continuation of, not a deviation from, the struggle for social justice in the United States.
"It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor-both black and white-through the poverty program," he said. "Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."
King could also see the Vietnam War in a larger context encompassing the past, present, and future. "The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. ... We will be ... attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy."
King knew that there would be Dick Cheneys and Donald Rumsfelds and Paul Wolfowitzes planning insane wars well into the future, draining the nation of precious blood and riches, unless Americans recognized and confronted the militarism that permeates our culture.
Unfortunately, MLK Day has been co-opted by those who cannot bear to undertake that national soul-searching.
For these people, our only option is to hurtle toward our dystopian destiny, where war is peace, ignorance is strength, and forgetting is remembering.
RICK MERCIER is a writer and editor for The Free Lance-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2005, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co. of Fredericksburg, Va.