'The Peace Race': Martin Luther King on the Middle East

What would Martin do?

On a beautiful afternoon in 1959, Coretta and I journeyed from our hotel in Beirut to take a plane for Jerusalem. After about two hours in the air we were notified to fasten our seat belts -- we were beginning to descend for the airport in Jerusalem. Because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this city has been divided.

And so this was a strange feeling -- to go to the ancient city of God and see the tragedies of man's hate and evil which causes him to fight and live in conflict.

Israel's right to exist as a state in security is incontestable. At the same time the great powers have the obligation to recognize that the Arab world is in a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony. Until a concerted and democratic program of assistance is affected, tensions cannot be relieved. So there is a need for a Marshall Plan for the Middle East.

At the heart of the problem are oil interests. As the American Jewish Congress has stated, "American policies in the Middle East have been motivated in no small measure by the desire to protect the $2.5 billion stake which U.S. oil companies have invested in the area." Some Arab feudal rulers are no less concerned for oil wealth and neglect the plight of their own peoples.

The solution will have to be found in statesmanship by Israel and progressive Arab forces who, in concert with the great powers, recognize that fair and peaceful solutions are the concern of all of humanity. Neither military measures nor a stubborn effort to reverse history can provide a permanent solution.

As I said in my Nobel Peace Prize Lecture: Nations are not reducing, but rather increasing, their arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has not been halted. The fact that most of the time human beings put the risk of nuclear war out of their minds because it is too painful does not alter the risk of such a war. Man's proneness to engage in war is still a fact, but wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete.

If we assume that life is worth living, that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative. In a day when guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil and political disillusionment. A world war, God forbid, would leave only smoldering ashes as a mute testimony to the human race whose folly led to ultimate death. If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno even the mind of Dante could not imagine.

It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must shift the arms race into the peace race.

In 1967, when I took my stand against the war in Vietnam, I recounted that I had lived in the ghettos of Chicago and Cleveland, and I knew the hurt, the cynicism and the discontent. As I walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I told them Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I tried to offer my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.

But they asked, and rightly so, "What about Vietnam?" They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. 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.

In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. This need to maintain social stability for our investments . . . tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. . . .

It is with such activities in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. He said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." 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 pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." 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 the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, 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. America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

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