On January 20, 1986, the first national Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday was observed. It took another 13 years for all 50 states to enact the holiday, and even today it goes unrecognized by various institutions and places of work.
However, today King’s family and other members of his “beloved community” keep his dream alive by giving meaning to the holiday that celebrates his life and legacy by commemorating the values he taught and embodied, the vision he inspired and the contributions he made.
Thanks to that same community, we have so far managed to resist treating King’s holiday as merely another day off work. According to the King Center website, this holiday is observed in more than 100 nations as a day of education, training, interracial cooperation and, above all, community service.
Still, for many of us King is largely a name like Washington or Kennedy, a figure known superficially, a kind of social and cultural sound bite from our past.
I regularly teach a course that includes King among several figures—Gandhi, Elie Wiesel, Dorothy Day and others—students study as they contemplate the need for peace in the world.
I often ask, If King were alive (he’d be 79), what issues would he’d be taking on? Many suggest King would be involved in bridging the gap between rich and poor, relentlessly fighting against prejudice and racism and overcoming the pandemic of AIDS. And, without a doubt, King would be deeply concerned about the problem of terrorism and the U.S. involvement in Iraq.
The war in Iraq is in many ways different from the war about which King increasingly spoke out against in the final years of his life. In April 1967, one year before his death and three years after U.S. troops moved substantially into Vietnam, King followed his conscience and, against the advice of many in the civil rights movement, brought the war “into the field of [his] moral vision.”
Nearly five years into the war in Iraq, a speech of King’s has relevance for us today, not only for the way the two conflicts are similar, but for how it sets forth King’s vision for America as more urgent than ever.
In “Beyond Vietnam,” King noted how the war in Vietnam diverted valuable resources from critical needs at home, took a disproportionate toll on blacks and the poor while asking them to guarantee for others what they did not yet realize in Harlem or Georgia and proffered violence as a means for solving problems in a way that risked poisoning the soul of America. Speaking of the Vietnamese, King offered an insight hauntingly echoed today: “They must,” he said, “see Americans as strange liberators.”
King’s feared tomorrow is our today. For all the present reasons one might object to the war in Iraq, it is, as King said of Vietnam, more importantly “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” a spirit shackled by an inability to understand “those who have been designated as our enemies” and thus blinded from seeing “the basic weaknesses of our own condition.”
Despite false assertions to the contrary, King spoke as one who loved America, calling for “a radical revolution of values” as the means for preventing the “spiritual death” of his beloved nation. As a Christian minister, King also spoke of the conflict that the war presented to a faith characterized by love of enemy and a sense of calling that increasingly took him beyond loyalties to race or nation or creed.
On this anniversary of MLK Day, most would affirm King’s ideal of America in overcoming poverty and racism and advancing equality, justice and freedom. However, we have not yet understood, as King did, that this vision cannot be achieved without realizing how our penchant as a nation for settling differences militarily is connected to our materialism and a nationalism that King concluded must be replaced by “an overriding loyalty to [hu]mankind as a whole.”
Even as victory and withdrawal scenarios for Iraq are debated, King still proclaims love and nonviolence as the answer to the political and moral questions of our time. As he said then about communism, this love and nonviolence may be our best defense against terrorism. “If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Such thoughts take us beyond Iraq.
Larry A. Dunn is a professor in the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific University.