Today, while not the actual anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s birth date, is the occasion on which we commemorate the man who reminded all of us of our greatness. Reverend King reflected; we are human beings. When we are united, we can, and will accomplish grand feats. We can overcome injustice, hatred, and abuses of a perceived power. As a country, we need not continue on the path of prejudice. A dream of opportunity for all can be realized if we work to right the wrongs of the past that, at the time of his speech, and today, still live. In front of hundreds of thousands, Doctor Martin Luther King Junior cried out for an ethical, economic, and emotional equity.
The revered Reverend recounted a history that in nineteen hundred and sixty three haunted humanity. In a nation founded on liberty and justice for all, for centuries, men, women, and children rose up on the back of slaves. He recalled the Emancipation Proclamation, that was intended to set Black people free. As Doctor King stood in the symbolic shadow of a President he characterized as a great American, Abraham Lincoln he reflected on the doctrine meant to end the discrimination that allows for such captivity. There in Washington District of Columbia, on that hot August day, Martin Luther King spoke of his dream, and a promise not yet fulfilled.
The pledge, a former President committed to, was then, five score years after it was avowed, not honored. Late in the twentieth century, Reverend King had seen in the streets of Alabama, understood, on the curvaceous slopes of California, on the red hills of Georgia, on every mound and molehill of Mississippi, in the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, and on mighty mountains of New York, freedom had not rung for Black Americans.
Hence, this son, grandson of a Pastor knew; he, his Black brothers, sisters, and all people could no longer remain silent, Doctor King worked towards an end to segregation. He endeavored to achieve enactments of Civil Rights laws. He helped create a coalition of conscience. The Reverend inspired many. Yet, he felt a need to do more. He had a dream.
On this summer day, unexpectedly, and advised against such high-minded rhetoric Martin Luther King could not restrain himself. He felt “the fierce urgency of now.” Thus, he mounted the platform, built on the backs of his ancestors, slaves, and revealed a reality that for too long was not mentioned publicly. The Reverend stood strong and spoke for the sons of former slaves, and their son, all of whom were stationed, by virtue of their race in an invisible bondage. King proclaimed what these men, women, and children could not say; yet, what all knew to be true. Racial discrimination, in the land of the free and home of the brave, flourished.
On August 28, 1963, after years of nonviolent protest, ample requests for racial equality, a cessation to prejudice, “Martin,” as those close to him called him, addressed an audience of many colors. He acknowledged, the veracity, that we, as people, are one. Humans, every one, are joined to the other. As he looked out onto the Washington Mall, Civil Rights leader King recognized that some, whose skin was not dark, who may not have experienced the bigotry their brethren had, still understood the dream as he did.
We must work together. On that afternoon, many persons whose complexion was pink and pale, expressed they were willing. “(W)hite brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
Yet, now, two score and three years anon, as a nation, we have yet to fully honor the promissory note Abraham Lincoln bestowed upon our Black brothers and sisters. The check Martin Luther King Junior referred to as “bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds” is not secured.
Granted we have made progress, slight and slow. There is still much to be done. Tomorrow, we hope to see a beginning. The first Black President will be sworn into office. An African-American family will reside in the White House. The Obama’s inspired Americans who yearn to believe that “Yes we can!”
Yet, let us not forget, one Black man, and his relations cannot, and will not, fulfill Martin Luther King’s dream. If all men are to reach the Mountain Top, we must climb together, in every moment. Obstacles cannot be forded by the eloquent words of our founders. Nor could Doctor King conquer the invisible inequity that permeated a prejudice populace then. Today, Barack Obama will not have the power to prohibit intolerance; nor can he do more than advocate for acceptance.
Change does not come from external forces. Only we can choose to believe, as Doctor Martin Luther King did. “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope,” his, yours, and mine.
Let us make our dreams come true. Let freedom ring! “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Please peruse the full text of this momentous, memorable speech. Let the words wash over you. Breathe them in. Let us begin to fulfill a dream too long denied.
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.
This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.
We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
On this, the anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s birth, January 15, war is in the wind. In cyberspace communities, and on the streets of Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, even on the supposedly serene avenues in America, people are engaged in brutal battles. Be the clashes verbal or written, the combat is cruel. The punishment is not proportional. This truth is not unusual. Sadly, it is the convention, steeped in tradition. There is abundant conflict in every corner of the globe, contrary to the Civil Rights Leader, and nonviolent activist would want. Certainly, these crusades are not as G-d would grant just.
The command, “an eye for an eye” is used to justify vengeance. Retaliation is said to be the way of the Almighty, Allah, and the son, Jesus. Yet, theologians would admonish such interpretations of sacred text.
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
~ Martin Luther King Junior
Martin Luther King Junior offers his veracity, which may speak to those who have faith in any of the teachings of holy passages. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are not silent on the subject of peace. Please peruse, ponder, and perhaps, walk in peace . . .
written by Rabbi David Hoffman, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS
God’s liberation of the Israelites had further implications. It served as the formative paradigm for the construction of an equitable vision of society.
One command in this week’s parashah stands out for me. It expresses the larger social vision that, I believe, all the commandments of the Torah must serve: “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger since you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
With this command God tells the Israelites, “You too know what it is like to be powerless – a stranger, at the mercy of the powerful, and this experience must cultivate within you a special sensitivity.” The “mishpatim,” the laws of our tradition, are there to create people and communities that are deeply sensitive to the experience of those without power and the disenfranchised.
This vision is manifested in a unique way in our parashah, without parallel in any Ancient Near Eastern law codes.
The law of Lex Talionis is presented in chapter twenty-one. Biblical law stipulates that if a person inflicts physical damage on another human being, the victim is entitled to restitution. Based on the language and context of this law, Biblical scholars believe that the principle – “An eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth” – (Talion) – mandated monetary compensation for bodily injury and did not call for literal physical retribution in retaliation for the physical injury suffered.
As Professors Moshe Greenberg, Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, and Nahum Sarna have all observed, the Torah’s articulation of Talion sought to limit retaliation to the exact measure of the injury and to reject the larger Near Eastern practice of vicarious punishment against family members. They also present extended arguments against a literal understanding of Talion and instead argue for an understanding of Talion as monetary reparation.
Most importantly for our discussion, Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, in her study on this law in the context of Ancient Near Eastern literature, observes that while the laws of Hammurabi distinguish between the social classes for the application of the law of Talion, the Pentateuch does not. Frymer-Kensky elaborates: “The laws of Hammurabi distinguish between the social classes of awilum and muskenum: physical attacks against the awilum are treated as crimes, while attacks against the muskenum (whose exact status is still unclear) are still treated as torts (lesser offenses).
While in the Bible, where there is no class distinction among free men, all physical assaults are treated as crimes.” (See Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, “Tit for Tat: The Principle of Equal Retribution in Near Eastern and Biblical Law,” BA 43: 230-234, p. 233.) In biblical law, slaves, not only free Israelites, are entitled to monetary compensation for bodily damage inflicted by their masters. (See Exodus 21:26-27.) Sarna claims that this law is “without parallel in other ancient Near Eastern legislation” in its commitment to equal justice for all citizens. (See Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 127.)
The general principle of the equality of all in the eyes of the court, stranger and citizen alike, is made explicit in the iteration of the law of Talion in Leviticus 24:17-22:
A Muslim only fights when forced to, and after exhausting all peaceful means of reconciliation. If any opportunity of peace arises, then Islam makes it compulsory for the Muslims to take it. A Muslim is also required to extinguish the flame of war whenever and wherever he can. The Qur’an says:
‘But if they incline to peace, you also incline to it, and (put your) trust in Allah. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower.’
By James Davis, Associate Professor, Capital Bible Seminary
To bring the issue a little closer to home, one night my family and I were sitting at the dinner table. My daughter Keilah asked a thought-provoking question. She said, “If my brother hits me, is it okay if I hit him back?” Of course, our answer was that she come to appropriate authorities on the matter – Mom or Dad.
Too much of the world’s ethic is to: 1) strike back; 2) get even; 3) do unto others like they do to you. Many times the justification for retaliation is that ancient law, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”188 I have to admit that this retaliatory ethic to right an injustice is appealing to part of me, especially initially when I feel I have been wronged.
But Jesus says “No” to using “an eye for an eye” as justification for personal revenge. Instead, He says “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” “turn over two garments if sued for one,” and “give to the one who asks from you.” Jesus’ teaching is not merely legal and technical, but extends deeply and profoundly into the practical situations of conflict, oppression, and the needs of everyday life.
Matthew 5:38-42 reads:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”
These verses have been described by many in the following ways:
1. The hard sayings of Jesus
2. The most difficult verses in the Bible
3. Hyperbole and impossible
4. Commands for another world
Jesus’ teaching here is confronting the popular misuse and abuse of the Old Testament law, known as the law of retaliation, in Latin, “the Lex Talionis.” The law of “life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” etc. . . .
III. The Law of Eye for Eye in the Old Testament.
So let’s start with looking at this law in the Old Testament.
Imagine yourself for a moment in an ancient situation where you and your family lived in a place with no police force, no courts, no local, state, or federal government – no king or other authority ruling over you or the people around you. Then one day as you are going about your business, you are shocked with the news that one of your neighbors had intentionally and maliciously hit your daughter so hard that four of her teeth are permanently knocked out. What would you do? There is no authority to report it to – to seek justice.
What if the situation was worse, and your child was intentionally killed? You would probably want to take the matter into your own hands and seek retribution, maybe even to the point of blood revenge. Perhaps you would try to impose the same type of injury on the attacker that he imposed. Maybe you would even want to punish him in greater degree than his offense. After you take revenge, the attacker’s family may feel that they have been mistreated and may want to respond, setting up a cycle of retaliation and revenge between you and them – the Hatfields and the McCoys so to speak.
Genesis 34 records an actual incident like this between Jacob’s family and the family of Shechem. After Jacob’s daughter Dinah is physically abused, Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, seek revenge by first deceiving Shechem’s family into getting men circumcised, and then they take the retaliatory action of killing all the males. Of course, it is clear from later in Genesis 49:5-7 that God did not approve of this action.
So the institution of the lex talionis into the Mosaic law for the nation of Israel and the ruling authorities was, I believe, a real advancement for the cause of justice designed to prevent personal actions of retaliation and revenge. The injured person or relative of the injured person could go to the governing judicial authority in Israel to seek justice. But what should the appropriate punishment be in the case of murder or maiming? This is where the law comes into play: “a life for a life,” “an eye for an eye,” “a tooth for a tooth.” The punishment must fit the crime – no more than the crime but also no less.
It was strict but fair. It was also designed to prevent and deter such crimes. It was there to remove punitive actions for crimes from the hands of the victim and his family and put them into the hands of the governing judicial system. It was designed as a principle of proportional justice. It was also designed to appropriately punish the offender.
This is the irony and abuse of how people misunderstand this law. It is misunderstood now the same way it was misunderstood at the time of Jesus. A law that was designed to prevent actions of personal retaliatory revenge is used to justify it!
The misunderstanding of the law would say if someone slaps you on the cheek, slap him back (after all “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”). If someone sues you, sue him back. If you are forced to go a mile by a Roman soldier, resist and fight back. Jesus is trying to confront that type of teaching and mindset.
Let me be clear that God wants us to take actions of personal revenge out of our hands. We can turn them over to the governmental authorities if appropriate, and even if that doesn’t work, we need to turn them over to God Himself.
May G-d grant us peace and prosperity for all. May man remember retaliation and revenge, are not as he, she, or those who trust only in themselves, would choose. The Lord Almighty, Allah bestowed upon his offspring free will. He created us in his image. The divine, be he or she an entity or merely an enigma, endorses peace. May mankind also embrace tranquility.
On the first day of the New Year, a banner headline screamed to elite readers of The Wall Street Journal,“What Kucinich Saw: Witnesses Described His Close Encounter.” Murdoch News Corporation Journalist, Michael M. Phillips offered what booklovers yearn to learn, the personal history of each of the players in a Presidential campaign. Tall tales and tittle-tattle capture the attention of Americans. The substantive information provided in these yarns, is scant. Nonetheless, the entertainment value is vast. An expectant public wants the dirt. We are happy to sling mud and spit in the face of historical leaders.
It is far easier, and perhaps more pleasurable to speak superfluously than it is to delve into the real issues. The effects of economy on the average American, the wars and the carnage that is expected to continue long into the future, health care, expensive and inadequate as it is, and especially racism are thought too delicate to fully discus. This truth was made more obvious, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama agreed to a truce for the “good of the country,” the Democratic Party, and for their respective campaigns.
The meaningful discourse, now purposely thwarted by the two most prominent Presidential hopefuls, began when the former First Lady spoke of the democratic system and how change is created in American society. Senator Clinton said, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Clinton continued. “It took a president to get it done.”
The comment, “unfortunate, and ill-advised” as defined by rival aspirant, Barack Obama stirred much debate. Afro-Americans nationwide stopped and reassessed their stance. Influential Blacks in Congress cautioned the candidate.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents Washington, D.C., in Congress, joined the chorus, warning Clinton to “watch out” in her comments on race. “The black community is not only sensitive on race,” Norton said in an interview on Bloomberg Television today. It is “super-sensitive on race.”
Loyal Clinton supporter, Andrew Young, a Black leader, and a trusted aide to Martin Luther King, remained faithful, as did others Clinton devotees.
However, amongst the electorate, those less famous for the active role they played in the fight for freedom, there was much rage. Many recall the sacrifice Black people made, the blood spilled, and the dream more real today with thanks to reverend King and his commitment to Civil Rights. Battered and bruised, peaceful individuals held onto their hope. They trusted they could change a nation mired in racism. Black folks learned to believe, inspired by a man who made history, and who transformed a way of life, Doctor Martin Luther King Junior. Hence, for countless Americans, Hillary Clinton’s remark was unwarranted, unwise, and diminished the achievements of Reverend King. Her statement was equally dismissive of the tens of thousands who stood beside Martin.
Clinton argued her words were misunderstood. Her intent distorted. She reminded Americans of her history, and her close affiliation with Black causes and Afro-American leaders. Accusations flew across the aisles. For days, the rhetoric raged on.
In truth, the words could have come from any candidate, or any individual. The pronouncement could have easily been made on the streets. For dark-skinned persons the proclamation speaks to the profound prejudice in America. For the average Joe or Joanne, Clinton’s observation verified what they believe. There is no reason to hope that a man or a community can change what is. Common people are powerless. In American, people think that only the President of the United States has the authority to accomplish what others cannot.
In the “Land of the free and home of the brave”, most people believe they cannot make a difference. Americans consider the government as separate from self. The public feels powerless. No matter the race, religion, or creed most Americans think they, as individuals, can do little to create change. For the majority of the population, it makes sense that a prominent Civil Rights Leader could not realize his dream without the assistance of a higher Earthly authority.
Members of many an activist group think themselves ineffective. Efforts to transform the country, and the planet, are great. Yet, the masses do not see what advocates do. On the rare occasions that they do, citizens retort “You cannot fight City Hall, so why try.” Perchance, that is the reason that the mainstream media does not report on rallies, or possibly, those in power, the influential individuals who control American democracy do not cover dissent for they do not wish to sanction the little guys and gals. Attempts to alter the establishment appear futile, or are accepted as such.
Conventional wisdom is we, the people, do not control what occurs in this country. Legislators make laws. The President of the United States ratifies the regulations. There is little regard for the will of the people. Once in a while, an Act may benefit the common folk. Such was the circumstance in 1964. However, for the most part, the little people, particularly persons of color, cannot expect to alter a nation, or its citizenry. In this country, people accept the process. Hence, initially, few questioned Senator Clinton’s words. Indeed, countless, thought the statement accurate. Some dark-skinned community leaders, who supported the Senator prior to the statement, avowed their continued commitment.
Residents of the United States, mostly, remain resistant to the rhetoric, In the “Land of the free,” it is easy to understand that while feathers might be ruffled and the hairs on the back of many a neck might be raised the candidates and the constituents will go on as though this topic is not as important as others. In America, apathy abounds, and why not. People have no reason to hope. They do not trust that they, as individuals, or even as community leaders with millions of followers, can transform this nation. Thus, for the majority of citizens, the Clinton comment went unnoticed.
Nonetheless, numerous Afro-Americans heard the words and were disheartened. Hillary Clinton’s spouse, Bill had long been characterized as the “First Black President of the United States.” The two, together, husband and wife, were said to have done more to improve the circumstances of Afro-Americans than any other “Administration” had. Among those who felt close to the Clinton’s, there was wonderment. How could a Clinton make such a statement? Hilary is not Bill. Her background and upbringing are significantly different from his. Hillary Clinton’s childhood and adult pursuits may be more typical for white Americans
For many Caucasians, and perchance for Hillary Clinton the uproar over her analysis of what occurs in America before change can occur, seemed a mystery. Countless white Americans did not take offense; nor did they comprehend why Black persons might have. In truth, incalculable numbers of light-skinned individuals never understood much of what Black Americans thought, or think. White people hear that African Americans consider Bill Clinton the “First Black President.” For Anglos this belief was and is a paradox. Some Anglos admittedly struggle to believe this man is beloved by people of color. Essayist, Suzy Hansen, of Salon fame, was among the befuddled. Hansen confessed the determination made no sense to her. The Columnist recounts her observations.
In her now-famous defense of a scandal-plagued Bill Clinton, Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison, went so far as to call him “our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.” “Clinton,” Morrison wrote in the 1998 New Yorker essay, “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”
I remember reading Morrison’s essay and choking. Morrison’s estimation of Clinton’s blackness seemed shallow, offensive and beside the point. At the time, I wasn’t the only one unnerved, and I’m sure many people still have problems with calling Clinton “the first black president,” no matter how Morrison intended it. Yet, in retrospect, I realize that my sharp reaction had something to do with age: I was pretty young when Reagan and Bush were in office. Like most white people, I didn’t understand how Clinton related to the African-American community; I also had a limited memory of how other presidents treated blacks.
In America other Presidents, all ivory skin leaders did not relate to the difficulties of dark-complexioned persons. The prim and proper alabaster population, daily, disregarded the plight of people of African descent. Black persons were to be seen, working, and not heard. For centuries, Americans, White, Anglo, Saxon Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Agnostic, and Atheist alike thought Afro-Americans were less valuable, less intelligence, less important than their Caucasian brethren. Indeed, paler pinkish persons did not feel remotely related to those whose skin shone a purplish brown hue.
For centuries, Caucasians sought to control the Black man or woman. When they realized the error of their ways, white people did not know what to say, or do. Subtly, Anglos shunned African-American citizens. Oh, smiles were exchanged. Cordialities could be heard. However, in sallow-skinned abodes across the nation, individual spoke from there heart. “Girl, you better not marry a Black man.” “Son, don’t you be seen with that girl. You will put the family to shame.” On the surface, in public, white folks may have been polite. They may appear accepting; however, ask them what they think in the quiet of their homes . . .
In recent years, as Black people gained a modicum of power, whites withered when in their presence. Caucasians embarrassed to divulge the disdain that had been passed down for generations, worked to present a posture of approval. In truth, for a vast number of Caucasians, tolerance was the tone. There was an unspoken tension between the races. In fact, today this strain still exists. Yet, the majority of Americans wish to believe the anxiety does not exist. There is much pressure not to be thought of as prejudiced.
Bill Clinton was not, and is not defined as a bigot. Black Americans felt he truly felt their pain. President Clinton had lived as Black persons do. He could and does relate. African-Americans appreciate this. Journalist, Suzy Hansen wanted to explore why this might be. In an interview with DeWayne Wickham, Hansen, and her readers, learned “Why blacks love Bill Clinton.” DeWayne Wickham, a former adjunct faculty member in the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism, an occasional presenter at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, an author and a columnist for USA Today offered his informed opinion in response to Hansen’s questions.
You do explain how poorly previous presidents have treated — or haven’t treated at all, for that matter — the black community. Do you think the black community’s enthusiasm for Clinton has something to do with the fact that Reagan and Bush were particularly insensitive? Was Clinton refreshing?
Ronald Reagan and George Bush I were part of a long line of presidents who just didn’t get it when it comes to people of color, particularly African-Americans. Of the first 15 presidents, 13 of them were staunch supporters of slavery. Eight of them actually owned slaves. Only John Adams and John Quincy Adams had no stomach for the institution. When you start talking about 41 presidents, you’ve already lost a third of them right there.
Then, what you find is that most presidents ran away from the black community. It was a difficult issue during slavery for white politicians. It was a difficult issue in the post-slavery period for politicians. It was a tough issue for a lot of presidents during the Jim Crow era when blacks were knocking on doors, demanding anti-lynching legislation, and Southern politicians were coming into the halls of Congress and the Oval Office, saying, “Not on our watch will you push that kind of legislation upon our people.”
The legislators had the power of the vote in Congress, and African-Americans had only, on their side, the moral high ground. Most presidents opted for the power of the vote. You have to get up to FDR and LBJ — on whose watch the important civil rights legislation in our history was passed. So, the list is very short.
What makes Clinton special is that he found a way to connect with us that was personal and up close. He convinced us in words and in deeds that this relationship was at least partly in his heart, as well as in his head. This guy grew up in the back of his grandfather’s store in Hope, Ark., hanging out with black kids.
Perhaps, this explanation helps us to understand the importance of empathy. Bill Clinton does not differentiate between a person of one color or another, or at least he discriminates to a lesser degree than other American Presidents did, or white persons do.
Characteristically, Caucasian Americans may associate with ebony individuals; they can befriend a select few of those labeled Black. However, unless Anglos integrate Afro-Americans into their real-life, place their dark-skin brethren in their hearts, until Anglos, by choice associate with persons of color, day in and day out, they cannot truthfully claim to be colorblind. Yet, they do, and then make statements such as the one Hillary Clinton offered.
A Black American; however, knows to the core, in the United States, there is no equality. Ample evidence demonstrates, just as the former First Lady implied. “The man” [or powerful white woman] must determine what is best for America. An influential leader, rarely if ever a person of color, must do what needs to be done. Only a person strong enough to be placed in Oval Office can better the nation. Thus far, no Black person has been thought to be of the caliber necessary to be President of the United States.
Americans claim Afro-Americans are not experienced enough in matters of State. They are not competent to lead a country. Ebony applicants lack the talent or skills necessary for the job, or so citizens of this country proclaim. There is always a reason not to advance a Black candidate beyond where he or she is. In the past, and possibly in the future, a white individual can and likely will fill the boots of President of the United States, of a corporation, or a community board, not because they are better suited for the position, it is just not quite time to leave racism behind.
Even Bill Clinton accepted this truth. When President Clinton decided to withdraw his nomination of Civil Rights Lawyer, Lani Guinier for Assistant Attorney General, his actions spoke volumes. Lani Guinier expressed her deep and sincere frustration for the fact that we live in a nation where people choose to distort the history of a Black Leader. Guinier was sorrowful; she did not have an opportunity to defend herself against the inaccuracy of numerous attacks. Prominent Civil Rights Lawyer, Lani Guinier could not publicly correct the misrepresentations of her record. However, she added her acknowledgement that a “divisive debate” over race was the “last thing” this nation could afford.
In taking the latter position, though not in her larger views, Guinier typified the current stance of most American liberals and much of the left by implying that the Democratic Party’s hesitantly progressive politics, is such a fragile flower that it cannot survive even the frank discussion of racism, let alone the pursuit of ‘race specific reform initiatives.
After a stint of resignation for the reality that was in the 1990s, when Lani Guinier agreed to forfeit her nomination, and forego the potentially conflict-ridden conversation the reflective Harvard Law School Professor and co-Author of The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy spoke out. In a 2004 an article titled A People’s Democratic Platform Guinier wrote . . .
Never has it been clearer that Democrats must promote a national conversation about what it means to be a multiracial democracy.
However, this dialogue has yet to occur. Each time the people of this country have an opportunity to ford a new frontier, and fashion a multiracial democracy, we forego the necessary discussion. We rather not chat about what could be, let alone act on alternatives.
Two years after Guinier’s declaration Americans were again confronted with the realities of racism. The race for a Tennessee Senate seat was on. Black American, Representative Harold E. Ford Junior, the Democratic candidate from Memphis whose campaign for the Senate was considered among the most hopeful in a mid-term election was doing well in the polls. People in the community gravitated towards the refined son of a former Congressman. A lawyer in his own right, this sophisticated genteel gentleman seemed ideal to replace retiring Senator Bill Frist. The Republicans feared the rise of Harold Ford, and decided to feed on the fears of the white American electorate. Republicans framed an advertisement and fashioned a message that is ever-present in America.
The commercial, financed by the Republican National Committee, was aimed at Representative Harold E. Ford Jr., the black Democrat from Memphis whose campaign for the Senate this year has kept the Republicans on the defensive in a state where they never expected to have trouble holding the seat.
The spot, which was first broadcast last week and was disappearing from the air on Wednesday, featured a series of people in mock man-on-the street interviews talking sarcastically about Mr. Ford and his stands on issues including the estate tax and national security.
The controversy erupted over one of the people featured: an attractive white woman, bare-shouldered, who declares that she met Mr. Ford at a “Playboy party,” and closes the commercial by looking into the camera and saying, with a wink, “Harold, call me.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Ford, who is single, said he was one of 3,000 people who attended a Playboy party at the Super Bowl last year in Jacksonville, Fla.
Critics asserted that the advertisement was a clear effort to play to racial stereotypes and fears, essentially, playing the race card in an election where Mr. Ford is trying to break a century of history and become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
Hilary Shelton, director of the N.A.A.C.P.’s Washington bureau, said the spot took aim at the sensitivities many Americans still have about interracial dating.
John Geer, a professor at Vanderbilt University and a specialist in political advertising, said that it “is playing to a lot of fears” and “frankly makes the Willie Horton ad look like child’s play.”
Professor Geer was alluding to the case of a convicted black murderer used in Republican commercials contending that the 1988 Democratic nominee for president, Michael S. Dukakis, was soft on crime.
Mr. Ford has been campaigning as an independent, new generation Democrat dedicated to changing the atmosphere in Washington; to putting more attention on the needs of the middle class and on bread and butter issues like health care and to bringing a fresh approach to the war in Iraq. He has strongly resisted Republican efforts to pigeonhole him as a liberal.
While the label Liberal can be avoided, other terms will suffice. A Progressive cannot wipe away the color of their skin. Harold Ford was unable to separate himself from the image of a single Black man on the prowl for a white woman, or so we might surmise. The quality candidate did not win the Senate seat.
Barack Obama may try not to draw attention to what could be problematic for his campaign, the race factor; nonetheless, accomplished and admired as he is, he cannot negate that his skin color, and how white persons react to any claim that causes white America concern will influence the vote.
In Nevada, registered voters received robot-calls. The intent was to remind white Americans, already anxious, of what they feared most. Barack Obama is not as he appears. A Harvard scholar, a former State Senator, a United States Senator, and a Presidential aspirant, is just as our enemies. He must be. His middle name is Hussein and . . .
“I’m calling with some important information about Barack Hussein Obama,” says the anonymous caller. “Barack Hussein Obama says he doesn’t take money from Washington lobbyists or special interest groups, but the record is clear that he does.”
The male voice concludes: “You just can’t take a chance on Barack Hussein Obama.”
In America, we do not speak of race; however, differences in skin color are always on our mind. Caucasians see a Black person walking in a “white neighborhood” and they wonder why. If whites hear of a crime, they assume the perpetrator is Black. Pink-skin people work to demonstrate that they believe in equality; however, since they, themselves feel hopeless and not among the authorities that rule it is difficult for them to accept that there was a man, and a time, when Black people moved mountains of hate.
Nonetheless, whites try to understand, on occasion. Caucasians set aside a day to honor the Civil Right s Leader, Martin Luther King Junior. A holiday was established so that all might revere and remember the dream.
As the turmoil and talk of the truce faded, Americans celebrated. On Tuesday, January 15, 2008, as the nation observed the anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s birth, and settled back into oblivion, satisfied that neither Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama would mention the unspeakable, the headlines screamed again, “Beware!” Beware! Black People cannot to be trusted. Weary white Americans, woeful of a world they have never known, are willing to believe Barack Obama must not be placed in a position of power. Again, Americans are easily absorbed in distraction. As witnessed earlier, some subscribe to the popular stories. They spread rumors. True, false, or not as a narrative might lead us to believe, Americans reveled in the chatter, before Hillary Clinton touched a nerve, and will again. People hope gossip will lessen the pain or at least help them to avoid discussions of the truer issues. If accusations are made against one person, than we need not look at the blanket of bigotry that envelops most every white American.
A column in the Washington Post this morning by Richard Cohen reported that Trumpet Magazine, founded by Obama’s pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ, Jeremiah Wright had named Louis Farrakhan “Man of the Year” in 2007.
Wright wrote that Farrakhan “truly epitomized greatness.”
Obama’s campaign released a statement from the senator earlier today.
“I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan,” Obama said in the statement. “I assume that Trumpet Magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree.”
Cohen reported in the Post that Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, had said that Obama and his minister disagree on many issues and Farrakhan was one of them.
However, in the Anglo eyes of many an American, extremist, and a man defined as Anti-Semite by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, Louis Farrakhan and Barack do have one common bond besides the association with the Pastor, each is a darkly complexioned man in America. That alone is enough to end a political career, let alone remind white Americans, this man cannot become President of the United States [and we would not want him to marry our sister.] Black Americans have been unable to ford this barrier. An individual with hope cannot change what is . . . at least that is the perception most Americans hold dear.
The accepted conviction is America needs an Administrator. We must have an overseer, an authority figure to guide us. When citizens select a President, we look for a known quantity, an established leader. In this country, we have a history of elite rule and we are comfortable with the familiar. Bill Clinton was thought exceptional for although he was a Rhodes Scholar, he was also a child of poverty. Bill Clinton’s common roots and authentic comfort with people of color entitled him to the title of “The First Black President.”
When the Clinton’s were in the White House, Blacks were welcome. They did not need to enter through the back door. An invitation to be part of society in a more real sense was appreciated. No other President accepted Afro-Americans as Bill Clinton had. The contrast between what had always been and what was in a Clinton Administration was great.
However, we must ponder; was the title bestowed, in part because those who never fully expected to see a Black man or woman in the Oval Office during the course of their lives, those who have been poor and beaten-down for so long are grateful for small favors. Black persons have seen the bottom. Thus, even a small step above the bedrock seemed to be sky-high.
Might we consider the more drastic change that occurred with thanks to a man with a dream. While Marin Luther King Junior may not have signed the papers that allowed for a freedom Black Americans had never known, without his efforts, without his will, without the masses that followed his lead, no President would have dared to move the mountain that obstructed our unified view of what could be accomplished.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson would never have thought to do as he did. Bill Clinton could not have conceived of the possibilities, unless or until Doctor King and millions of Americans with hope in their hearts had gathered together to shatter the notion that Black persons would silently serve as economic slaves to the white masters.
After the Hillary Clinton declaration one of those instruments of change, who served the people in a practical manner, a man who marched for civil rights, and did more to create equality than Bill Clinton might have spoke on the topic, now re-titled taboo. Cleveland Sellers, heads the department of African-American studies at the University of South Carolina, is an Obama supporter, and a veteran of the civil rights movement. When asked how he felt after hearing Hillary Clinton’s comment, he offered why he did not believe she felt his pain.
During the New Hampshire primary battle, Hillary Clinton made a comment about Martin Luther King that seemed, at first anyway, to diminish his role in the civil rights battle in relation to that of President Lyndon Johnson. She quickly clarified those remarks and re-emphasized the accomplishments of King, but how has that played in South Carolina??
That created some real problems, because it was an indication of a kind of insensitivity. For a veteran of the civil rights movement-and that’s what I am-it wasn’t just Dr. King, it was all of the unsung heroes and heroines of that era. Modjeska Simkins here in South Carolina, and the Fannie Lou Hamers, and the children in Birmingham, and the people who rode the freedom buses and went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 … All of these people created the climate in which Congress felt the pressure and acted.
Mister Sellers was not the only one to express his displeasure. Prominent persons, radio professionals, and elected officials were disenchanted. The Clinton charm wore thin in contrast to the coldness of a claim.
In South Carolina, scene of a key showdown on January 26, where half the Democratic electorate are African Americans, black radio hosts have expressed outrage over Mrs Clinton’s remark. Now one of the state’s most influential black congressmen is hinting that he might endorse Mr Obama.
He said he was angered by what he claims were dismissive comments about Martin Luther King by Mrs Clinton. Aides to Mr Obama, who hopes to become America’s first black president, are also accusing Bill Clinton of being racially insensitive when he said in New Hampshire last week that Mr Obama’s campaign was a “fairytale.”
James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress and a veteran of the civil rights movement, referred to a comment made by Mrs Clinton on Monday, the day before her stunning comeback in New Hampshire set up a brutal nomination battle with Mr Obama. . . .
Mrs Clinton has since tried to clarify the comment, but the damage was done. Mr Clyburn, who had previously said that he would stay neutral, told The New York Times that he had been “bothered a great deal” by the remarks and was rethinking his position..
Even amongst the electorate, there is much clamor. In South Carolina, there is ample concern for the Clinton comment. For some, Martin Luther King was able to deliver the dream, and did far more than Bill Clinton might have. The monetary gains, while great could not have been realized without the dreamer who helped millions to believe, to speak out, and who worked to ensure the invisible people were seen.
Mac’s on Main is a popular soul food restaurant in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia. It is run by chef and City Councilman Barry Walker. The walls are decorated with signed, framed photos of blues greats like B.B. King and laminated maps of his council district. Walker is undecided but said he is unhappy with the direction the Clinton campaign has taken.
“I think they are going for broke now, going for whatever they can do,” he said.
Referring to an incident on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in which Clinton became teary-eyed while speaking to voters, Walker said, “crying isn’t going to help here.”
“She can cry all she wants, (but) black people have been crying for years. What’s going to help here is addressing the issues that are affecting us,” he said.
Joseph Free of Columbia, who was dining at the restaurant, agreed.
“They (are) … getting into the part I was hoping wouldn’t happen … (turning) the thing into a race problem,” he said.
Free’s comments reflect a kind of collective disappointment in the black community, according to Todd Shaw, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.
“I think that African-American voters are wise in the sense that they know there is more to come. That is the fear,” he said.
Once again, apprehension triumphs. Just as Americans accept that we must do all that we can to protect ourselves from those our leaders call foreign enemies, citizens embrace an agenda that allows us to eliminate discussion about the enemy within, racism.
Senators Clinton and Obama decided that talk of the divide between Anglos and Afro-Americans would not be healthy. They mutually adopted a truce to protect Americans from themselves. The two candidates have elected to continue as they had. Distractions dominate the campaigns. Americans continue to engage as Wall Street Journal Columnist Phillips did. As a country, we consider the most pertinent questions, the ones we ponder each day without prodding.
Will Barack Obama’s past drug use preclude a White House future? Will Christian conservatives forgive Rudy Giuliani his two divorces? Will voters forgive Hillary Clinton for forgiving Bill?
And what exactly did Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich see hovering above actress Shirley MacLaine’s house 25 years ago?
Could Dennis Kucinich, or any other human being, have seen the least likely unidentified object in the political skies, a truce between the two most prominent Presidential candidates, a permanent cease-fire. He could have as could we. In Presidential politics, as on the streets of America, we do not speak of what is real. Racism remains a staple in American society. A Presidential aspirant who speaks of change through hope, is reminded of the fact that we must do as always has been done. Experience teaches us, a white person with a plan will always be more effective than a Black individual who can inspire others to dream.
White persons want to suspend the storm, perhaps through eternity. Black people, who know their place agree to simmer silently. Few recall the words of the man who made a difference. It was not President Johnson who motivated millions in droves. Nor did Bill Clinton truly change conditions for the people of color. It was Martin who refused to remain silent. The message Reverend and Doctor Martin Luther King Junior carried throughout the country and into Washington District of Columbia advanced why we see today, Blacks and whites working together to bring about equality.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
On this day of mourning, we must not forget to give thanks to the man, the person, and the insights of Martin Luther King Junior.
Although he spoke of a war, not Iraq, his sentiments still sing to us, or at least to me. I will say little more in this sharing. I invite you to contribute. Please ponder the parallels and compose as you will. I welcome your wisdom. I am presenting portions of a speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence delivered Dr. King delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City. Please reflect and share your thoughts. For me, the similarity is stark. I am shaken as I ponder the possibility; we could have learned from the past. However, we did not. Will we now? Might Americans consider their own silence and rise above the accepted view, the people have no power.
This speech was offered a year to the day before Reverend, Doctor King was assassinated. Contrary to Martin’s musings violence rang out in America and in Vietnam. It still does. Then and now we justify what we choose and stay silent, still, or supplant our will to the government.
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam [Iraq?]. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam [Iraq?].
For me, quiet is compliance and acceptance. We must speak and act kindly if we are to achieve peace in Iraq, in America, and on this planet. As Ted Kennedy and others have stated, Iraq is our Vietnam.
Reverend King continues remind us, the people of our power. Martin Luther King, Junior may use the oft-noted Bush term, “difficult”; however, I believe the tenor differs. President George W. Bush seems to prefer martyrdom. Mister Bush is sacrificing his soul to serve us, the American people. Doctor King offers hope. He is not claiming to protect the citizens of this country. King invites them to speak for themselves, to work for their freedom, our freedom.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. 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. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
The results of the last midterm election may reflect what occurs when those that were silent for so long, let their voices be heard.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam [Iraq?], many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.
Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam [Iraq?]. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam [Iraq?] or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.
Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.
We all pay when we do not act on our principles. Humankind speaks of peace and then pounces at every opportunity. We cycle and recycle war. We have for centuries. Those throughout this planet have rights, human and civil. May we honor these daily. If we do not we will be called to remember . . .
The Importance of Vietnam [Iraq?]
Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam [Iraq?] into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam [Iraq?] and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago, there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program.
There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam [Iraq?] 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 [Iraq?] 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.
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, their brothers, and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
So we have been repeatedly faced with 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. So, we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
This has not changed. It is the poor, the down trodden that fight for our freedom. Yet, these young men and women are not truly free in their own countries. Minorities serve in the military more so than white persons do.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them 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 [Iraq?]?
They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and 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. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet, I swear this oath–
America will be!
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam [Iraq?]. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.
Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the “Vietcong” or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
Finally, as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
Young American men and women convicted for committing violent crimes, transgressions against the state, or the “state of affairs” ask us to assess ourselves. Why is it acceptable when we wound our enemy abroad and not the oppressor within our own land? We cannot be silent! We must answer the poor and impoverished in this nation. I believe we must acknowledge that all, are equally our brothers, our sisters, our friends.
It is my passion to work towards peace. I acknowledge ‘Aggression begets aggression.’ Violent reactive behaviors breed greater violence. I, as an individual must mirror peace and promote the same. I trust, as did Reverend Martin Luther King protest against brutalities is a must. However we must present a posture that evokes empathy.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam [Iraq?]. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam [Iraq?]. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
The neoconservatives claim that the Left, the Liberals have no plan. Might we enact the King or Buddhist agenda?
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam [Iraq?]. Recently one of them wrote these words:
“Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese [Iraqi?] and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam [Iraq?]. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop, our war against the people of Vietnam [Iraq?] immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.
The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam [Iraq?], that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese [Iraqi?]people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam [Iraq?], we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
1. End all bombing in North and South Vietnam [Iraq?].
2. Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
3. Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
4. Realistically, accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam [Iraq?] and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam [Iraq?] government.
5. Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam [Iraq?] in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.
Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese [Iraqi?] who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We most provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary.
Protesting The War
Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam [Iraq?]. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.
I invite you to speak, to share, to state your beliefs. My personal preference is for peaceful expressions. I trust in you, in the goodness of all men, women, and children.
May your life be full and fulfilling. May [spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and conjointly physical] abundance be yours, ours. May we give to others what we wish to receive. May reciprocal reverence flourish throughout the universe.