Governor Huckabee and Teaching Toward Free Inquiry

April 30, 2008

The core lessons of a liberating education—an education for citizenship, participation, engagement, and democracy—are these: each human being is unique and of incalculable value, and we each have a mind of our own; we are all works-in-progress swimming through a dynamic history in-the-making toward an uncertain and indeterminate shore; we can choose to join with others and act on our own judgments and in our own freedom; human enlightenment and liberation are always the result of thoughtful action.

On the side of a liberating and humanizing education is a pedagogy of questioning, an approach that opens rather than closes spaces of curiosity, perspective, dialogue, and imagination. It demands something upending from students and teachers alike: repudiate your place in the pecking order, it urges, remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance. You must change.

Occasions for teaching that tries to get to the root of things, teaching that is more than a kind of trivial pursuit of the obvious, happen all the time. Practically anything, from the lofty to the mundane, can be the object of serious inquiry and provide, then, opportunities for teachers and students to enact a curriculum of democracy and freedom. I recently read, for example, that in Arkansas—where Governor Huckabee is the poster boy of dramatic weight loss and a leader in the national campaign against obesity—school report cards must now include each child’s B.M.I., his or her body mass index. Obesity is indeed a massive public health problem and its dimensions have been growing for decades: obesity is the number one killer-disease in the US, and today’s children will be the first generation in history to fail to outlive their parent generation, chiefly because of fat. But rather than dully accept that the B.M.I. notation will make students and parents more aware of the scale of the thing, we might hold the initiative up to scrutiny and interrogation.

In the interest of historicizing everything, we might ask:

· What is the history of obesity as a health problem in the US and elsewhere? Is it considered an “eating disorder,” and if so how is it like/unlike other “eating disorders”? What part of the problem is genetic predisposition, what part habit or education, what part access?

· What is the history of engaging schools to solve broader social problems? What’s been the result of mandating alcohol and drug awareness programs, for example, or suicide prevention and abstinence programs?

In the spirit of politicizing everything, we can go further:

· Who decided to mandate the inclusion of the B.M.I.? Was there broad participation and dialogue by parents, students, teachers, or the broader community?

· What industries suffer because of obesity, and which ones benefit? What’s the relationship of fat and sugar to the problem? What public and economic policies impact the sugar industry, for example?

· Is obesity correlated in any way to income, class, race, or gender? How?

· Are exercise facilities available equally across communities regardless of income or property values? Are parks equitably distributed?

· Are fruits and vegetables accessible equitably regardless of community income?

In the spirit of active inquiry close to home, again more questions:

· How much time is allotted to recess and physical education?

· Are all students equally encouraged or even required to participate in sports and games?

· What is a typical school lunch?

· Does the school sell soda, candy, or fatty foods from vending machines? Does it sell fast food or junk food? Fruits and vegetables? Why?

· Do clubs or teams sell candy or cookies to raise funds?

While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested bits of information. A fundamental choice and challenge for teachers, then, is this: to acquiesce to the machinery of control, or to take a stand with our students in a search for meaning and a journey of transformation. To teach obedience and conformity, or to teach its polar opposite: initiative and imagination, curiosity and questioning, the capacity to name the world, to identify the obstacles to your full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. A pedagogy of questioning can begin to open those doors.

A very brief word on teaching for social justice…

April 30, 2008

All schools serve the societies in which they’re embedded—authoritarian schools serve authoritarian systems, apartheid schools serve an apartheid society, and so on. Practically all schools want their students to study hard, stay away from drugs, do their homework, and so on. In fact none of these features distinguishes schools in the old Soviet Union or fascist Germany from schools in a democracy, and in fact those schools produced some excellent scientists and athletes and musicians and so on. They also produced obedience and conformity, moral blindness and easy agreement, obtuse patriotism and a willingness to follow orders right into the furnaces. In a democracy one would expect something different—a commitment to free inquiry, questioning, and participation; a push for access and equity; a curriculum that encouraged free thought and independent judgment; a standard of full recognition of the humanity of each individual. In other words, social justice.

Much Ado by Stanley Fish NY Times, April 28,2008

April 29, 2008

In 1952, when McCarthyism was at its height, Supreme Court Justice
William O. Douglas labeled the investigative techniques of the
junior senator from Wisconsin “guilt by association” (Adler v.
Board of Education). Douglas added that McCarthyite tactics were
“repugnant to our society” because, despite the absence of any
overt wrongdoing, the pasts of those attacked were “combed for
signs of disloyalty” and for utterances that might be read as
“clues to dangerous thoughts.”
More than a half century later, “McCarthyism” was joined in the
lexicon by “Swiftboating,” the art of the smear campaign mounted
with the intention not of documenting a wrong, but of covering the
victim with slime enough to cast doubt on his or her integrity.
Now, in 2008, after a primary season increasingly marked by dirty
pool and low blows, “McCarthyism” and “Swiftboating” have come
together in a particularly lethal and despicable form. I refer to
the startling revelation – proclaimed from the housetops by both
the Clinton and McCain campaigns – that Barack Obama ate dinner at
William Ayers’s house, served with him on a board and was the
honored guest at a reception he organized.
Confession time. I too have eaten dinner at Bill Ayers’s house (more
than once), and have served with him on a committee, and he was one
of those who recruited my wife and me at a reception when we were
considering positions at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Moreover, I have had Bill and his wife Bernardine Dohrn to my
apartment, was a guest lecturer in a course he taught and joined in
a (successful) effort to persuade him to stay at UIC and say no to
an offer from Harvard. Of course, I’m not running for anything, but
I do write for The New York Times and, who knows, this association
with former fugitive members of the Weathermen might be enough in
the eyes of some to get me canned.
Did I conspire with Bill Ayers? Did I help him build bombs? Did I
aid and abet his evasion (for a time) of justice? Not likely, given
that at the time of the events that brought Ayers and Dohrn to
public attention, I was a supporter of the Vietnam War. I haven’t
asked him to absolve me of that sin (of which I have since
repented), and he hasn’t asked me to forgive him for his (if he has
Indeed in all the time I spent with Ayers and Dohrn, politics –
present or past – never came up.
What did come up? To answer that question I have to introduce a word
and concept that is somewhat out of fashion: the salon. A salon is a
gathering in a private home where men and women from various walks
of life engage in conversation about any number of things,
including literature, business, fashion, films, education and
philosophy. Ayers and Dohrn did not call their gatherings salons,
but that’s what they were; large dinner parties (maybe 12-15), with
guests coming and going, one conversation leading to another, no
rules or obligations, except the obligation to be interesting and
interested. The only thing I don’t remember was ideology, although
since this was all going on in Hyde Park, there was the general and
diffused ideology, vaguely liberal, that usually hangs over a
university town.
Many of those attending these occasions no doubt knew something
about their hosts’ past, but the matter was never discussed and why
should it have been? We were there not because of what Ayers and
Dohrn had done 40 years ago, but because of what they were doing at
the moment.
Ayers is a longtime professor of education at UIC, nationally known
for his prominence in the “small school” movement. Dohrn teaches at
Northwestern Law School, where she directs a center for child and
family justice. Both lend their skills and energies to community
causes; both advise various agencies; together they have raised
exemplary children and they have been devoted caretakers to aged
parents. “Respectable” is too mild a word to describe the couple;
rock-solid establishment would be more like it. There was and is
absolutely no reason for anyone who knows them to plead the fifth
or declare, “I am not now nor have I ever been a friend of Bill’s
and Bernardine’s.”
Least of all Barack Obama, who by his own account didn’t know them
that well and is now being taken to task for having known them at
all. Of course it would have required preternatural caution to
avoid associating with anyone whose past deeds might prove
embarrassing on the chance you decided to run for president
someday. In an earlier column, I spoke of the illogic of holding a
candidate accountable for things said or done by a supporter or an
acquaintance. Now a candidate is being held accountable for things
said and done four decades ago by people who happen to live in his
upper middle class neighborhood.
Hillary Clinton and John McCain should know better. In fact, they do
know better. To date, Clinton has played hardball, but hasn’t really
fouled. I never saw anything wrong or inaccurate about her saying
that Martin Luther King’s vision required a president’s action
before it could be implemented, or Bill Clinton’s saying that Jesse
Jackson won the South Carolina primary twice. He did, and if the
implication was that Obama’s base constituency is African-American,
that too was accurate and continues to be so.
As for her saying that all Obama had ever done was give a speech,
she was being generous: he gave that speech against invading Iraq
at a small event featuring other speakers (including Jackson); the
local press coverage did not even mention him; and if this was, as
his campaign claims, an act of courage, it was a singularly private
one, maybe even a fairy tale. Clinton’s exaggerating the danger of
her visit to Bosnia (most likely unintentional because, as she
said, “I’m not dumb”) came a little closer to crossing a line, but
didn’t. Re-telling a story (about a hospital’s refusal to treat an
uninsured patient) that turned out not to be true was evidence of
faulty campaign organization, not of deliberate duplicity.
But the literature the Clinton campaign is passing around about
Obama and Ayers cannot be explained away or rationalized. It
features bold heads proclaiming that Ayers doesn’t regret his
Weathermen activities (what does that have to do with Obama? Are we
required to repudiate things acquaintances of our have not said?),
that Ayers contributed $200 to Obama’s senatorial campaign (do you
take money only from people of whose every action you approve?),
that Obama admired Ayers’s 1997 book on the juvenile justice
system, that Ayers and Obama participated on a panel examining the
role of intellectuals in public life. That subversive event was
sponsored by The Center for Public Intellectuals, an organization
that also sponsored an evening conversation (moderated by me)
between those notorious radicals Richard Rorty and Judge Richard
Posner (also a neighbor of Ayers’s; maybe the Federalist Society
should expel him).
I don’t see any crimes or even misdemeanors in any of this. I do see
civic activism and a concern for the welfare of children. The
suggestion that something sinister was transpiring on those
occasions is backed up by nothing except the four-alarm-bell
typography that accompanies this list of entirely innocent, and
even praiseworthy, actions.
As for Senator McCain, in 2004 he repudiated the Swiftboat attacks
against fellow veteran John Kerry, but this time around he’s
joining in, and if Obama gets the nomination, it seems that the
Arizona senator will be playing the Ayers card. Of course, McCain
knows a little about baseless accusations and innuendos, given his
experience in South Carolina in 2000. And in case he has forgotten
what it feels like, he may soon be reminded; for there’s a story
abroad on the Internet that says that rather than being a heroic,
tortured prisoner of war, McCain was a collaborator who traded
information for a comfortable apartment serviced by maids who were
really prostitutes. I don’t believe it for a second, just as I am
sure that Senators McCain and Clinton don’t really believe that
Obama condones setting bombs or supports a radical agenda that was
pursued (as he has said) when he was eight years old.
The difference is that I feel a little dirty just for having
repeated a scurrilous rumor even as I rejected it. Apparently
Obama’s two opponents have no such qualms and are happily
retailing, and wallowing in, the dirt.

Mayor Daley Speaks Out

April 27, 2008


There are a lot of reasons that Americans are angry about Washington politics. And one more example is the way Senator Obama’s opponents are playing guilt-by-association, tarring him because he happens to know Bill Ayers.

I also know Bill Ayers. He worked with me in shaping our now nationally-renowned school reform program. He is a nationally-recognized distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois/Chicago and a valued member of the Chicago community.

I don’t condone what he did 40 years ago but I remember that period well. It was a difficult time, but those days are long over. I believe we have too many challenges in Chicago and our country to keep re-fighting 40 year old battles.

Letters to the Chicago Tribune

April 27, 2008

I, too, have been to Bill Ayers’ home. He has been to mine. I have known him 13 years. I have read his powerful prose, heard him speak in public and have had many private conversations with him over coffee. Am I somehow a different person because of this? I sincerely hope so. I am one of an incalculable number of Bill Ayers’ friends, associates, mentees and students who seek his company to be challenged, invigorated, sometimes irritated and often inspired.

I do not condone what Bill did 40 years ago. In fact, I find it impossible to defend.

I do celebrate who he is in his many dimensions, today.

This is what I know: When I spend time with Bill, I see our world as a flawed, fascinating and hopeful place that is rife with ironies and potential. Bill’s curiosity about the world and his abiding respect for its people is contagious. He speaks with passion and eloquence about the lives and futures of children in ways that remind us that this is the most important subject of our times. His belief in the capacities of all people is tenacious, and he has a gift for nurturing individuals’ strengths forward. He is unique in his ability to make lasting friends of strangers in a matter of moments.

He can also be aggravating and perplexing. But it was Bill Ayers, more than anyone else, who has taught me to care about the three-dimensionality of all people, and to know that every one of us is a whole lot more complex than the best or the worst thing we’ve ever done.

I know all this, not from what I hear on talk radio or read in the papers. I know this from 13 years of first-hand experience that has remained unfailing over time.

–Mark Larson


Steve Chapman argues guilt by association, but if one happens to agree with that premise, perhaps we should expand and revise the argument. I suggest instead that we judge Barack Obama by arguing affirmation by association, with a far more convincing scenario. Look what Obama has done with a little help from his friends: He has put together a campaign that has been able to steer his candidacy from virtual obscurity 15 months ago to where it is today, along with $40 million in the coffers and thousands of new voters now excited about the political process. These people are surely better friends and acquaintances with him than is William Ayers, and they are talented, smart, disciplined and dedicated to his cause. I suggest we look to their organizational accomplishments when judging Obama’s character, judgment and leadership, rather than what Ayers did when Obama was 8.

–Jeanine Tobin


Letters to the Chicago Tribune

April 27, 2008

Steve Chapman’s normally deft portrayal of the American political scene surprised me in his column concerning Barack Obama’s acquaintance with William Ayers. Most of us liberals loved William F. Buckley Jr. and his conservative purity, with whom Chapman opened his piece.

The word “extremism” never sits well with me, whether spouted by Barry Goldwater or Chapman, whom I admire and read as often as I can. In such analogy, I remind myself why I don’t mix in social circles involving the Bushes, Cheneys and Rumsfelds–themselves saintly conservatives who have led America to real political purity. I guess it’s OK for others to socialize with them without condemnation of blowing up people abroad.

Ayers’ and his wife’s actions are no less tragic and criminal in their intent. But we have an august body of political cohorts in Congress for whom such political deliberation involves comparable mayhem. Whether they wear flag pins on their lapels or not, extremism in pursuit of liberty is a vice if it leads to the deaths of innocent people too. Thank God, William Buckley and Barack Obama have not been convicted of such homicide; neither would abide by hiding behind a pin to foster such political destruction, already witnessed by our forces of extremism disguised as democratic action.

Often it takes more courage to remove a pin than to wear one, if the cause is just.

–Vincent Kamin


It’s sad to see a Libertarian such as Steve Chapman embrace McCarthyism. First he tells us that Pete Seeger should be banned from getting medals for his folk singing due to his politics. Then he tells us that Barack Obama is responsible for having an acquaintance with William Ayers.

Well, what about the Chicago Tribune, which has done far worse than Obama? The Tribune has printed pieces written by Ayers. Will Chapman resign from the Tribune now that its past association with a so-called terrorist (albeit one who never hurt anybody) has been revealed?

–John K. Wilson


Radical left

‘Who has forgiven William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn for their revolutionary activities in the Weather Underground? Certainly it is not those who love their country and want to protect it from left-wing revolutionaries.

Many forgivers are concentrated in our universities, where the radical left tends to concentrate as if by centripetal force.

Parents who want to know what happened to their children’s minds and morals during college years should look to the left-wing faculty for answers. There are many examples to support this assertion.

–Stan Stec


Letters to the Chicago Tribune

April 27, 2008

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We’re all terrorists

Steve Chapman’s column about Barack Obama’s friendship with Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers (“About Obama’s terrorist acquaintance,” Commentary, April 20) was far, far too simplistic. All of us who were adult Americans in the ’70s were complicit in one form or terror or another.

Yes, police officers were tragically lost in a foolish attempt to attack the U.S. government, but all such casualties were part and parcel of a foolish war instigated by a Democratic president and continued by a Republican.

The Weather Underground is guilty of terror, as is each Vietnam vet who killed or ordered the killings of civilians. I sat on my 2-S deferment and let it all happen; I’m guilty.

We’re all ex-terrorists, no matter which side we enabled then or are on now. That’s what wars of aggression do to the instigating nations.

Obedience and loyalty are never excuses for sins against mankind. Finger-pointing won’t hide that.

–Chris Deignan


Past transgressions

Steve Chapman apparently doesn’t believe in redemption by others for past misconduct. Nor does he demonstrate the need to cease and apologize for his own complicity in misconduct.

His column on Barack Obama’s relationship with former Weather Underground leaders William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn appears to be part of a concerted media and Republican campaign to paint Obama as unpatriotic. Ayers and Dohrn are convenient vehicles to further this agenda.

As one who opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s, I understand the frustration of those who worked to end an immoral war that needlessly killed more than a million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans. Ayers and Dohrn make no apologies for their particular efforts, which included condoning if not participating in violent conduct.

But Chapman fixates on the lack of apology as the main reason to impugn Obama’s character through his relationship with Ayers and Dohrn.

They long ago fulfilled their legal responsibility for their radical activities. They could have thrown away the rest of their lives as many in their movement did. Instead they redeemed themselves by becoming productive citizens, working to make this a better country and world.

Thankfully at least one presidential contender has the wisdom and courage to work with anyone, regardless of past transgressions, who now treads the path of peace and progress.

Instead of obsessing over refusals to apologize for 40-year-old behavior, Chapman and the rest of the Tribune editorial board should examine their continued enabling of the Bush administration’s needless and self-destructive war in Iraq, which is bankrupting America, morally and financially.

Our future leaders need to solicit the support of every thoughtful and productive member of society if we are going to end this catastrophic war and begin solving the avalanche of problems confronting America.

–Walt Zlotow

Clarifying the Facts— a letter to the New York Times, 9-15-2001

April 21, 2008

September 15, 2001

To The Editors—

In July of this year Dinitia Smith asked my publisher if she might interview me for the New York Times on my forthcoming book, Fugitive Days. From the start she questioned me sharply about bombings, and each time I referred her to my memoir where I discussed the culture of violence we all live with in America, my growing anger in the 1960’s about the structures of racism and the escalating war, and the complex, sometimes extreme and despairing choices I made in those terrible times.

Smith’s angle is captured in the Times headline: “No regrets for a love of explosives” (September 11, 2001). She and I spoke a lot about regrets, about loss, about attempts to account for one’s life. I never said I had any love for explosives, and anyone who knows me found that headline sensationalistic nonsense. I said I had a thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce of my strength. I told her that in light of the indiscriminate murder of millions of Vietnamese, we showed remarkable restraint, and that while we tried to sound a piercing alarm in those years, in fact we didn’t do enough to stop the war.

Smith writes of me: “Even today, he ‘finds a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance,’ he writes.” This fragment seems to support her “love affair with bombs” thesis, but it is the opposite of what I wrote:

We’ll bomb them into the Stone Age, an unhinged American politician had intoned, echoing a gung-ho, shoot-from-the-hip general… each describing an American policy rarely spoken so plainly. Boom. Boom. Boom. Poor Viet Nam. Almost four times the destructive power Florida… How could we understand it? How could we take it in? Most important, what should we do about it? Bombs away. There is a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance. The rhythm of B-52s dropping bombs over Viet Nam, a deceptive calm at 40,000 feet as the doors ease open and millennial eggs are delivered on the green canopy below, the relentless thud of indiscriminate destruction and death without pause on the ground. Nothing subtle or syncopated. Not a happy rhythm. Three million Vietnamese lives were extinguished. Dig up Florida and throw it into the ocean. Annihilate Chicago or London or Bonn. Three million—each with a mother and a father, a distinct name, a mind and a body and a spirit, someone who knew him well or cared for her or counted on her for something or was annoyed or burdened or irritated by him; each knew something of joy or sadness or beauty or pain. Each was ripped out of this world, a little red dampness staining the earth, drying up, fading, and gone. Bodies torn apart, blown away, smudged out, lost forever.

I wrote about Vietnamese lives as a personal American responsibility, then, and the hypocrisy of claiming an American innocence as we constructed and stoked an intricate and hideous chamber of death in Asia. Clearly I wrote and spoke about the export of violence and the government’s love affair with bombs. Just as clearly Dinitia Smith was interested in her journalistic angle and not the truth. This is not a question of being misunderstood or “taken out of context,” but of deliberate distortion.

Some readers apparently responded to her piece, published on the same day as the vicious terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, by associating my book with them. This is absurd. My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official policy. It begins literally in the shadow of Hiroshima and comes of age in the killing fields of Southeast Asia. My book criticizes the American obsession with a clean and distanced violence, and the culture of thoughtlessness and carelessness that results from it. We are now witnessing crimes against humanity in our own land on an unthinkable scale, and I fear that we might soon see innocent people in other parts of the world as well as in the U.S. dying and suffering in response.

All that we witnessed September 11—the awful carnage and pain, the heroism of ordinary people—may drive us mad with grief and anger, or it may open us to hope in new ways. Perhaps precisely because we have suffered we can embrace the suffering of others and gather the necessary wisdom to resist the impulse to lash out randomly. The lessons of the anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s may be more urgent now than ever.

Bill Ayers Chicago, IL

Martin Luther King Jr.—if anyone is listening

April 19, 2008

Speech by Martin Luther King
Stanford University, April 14, 1967

The Other America Speech is available in VHS and DVD formats at $19.95 each, and can be purchased directly by calling 510.843.3699
The transcript of this speech was found at:
Video can be found at:

Members of the faculty and members of the student body of this great institution of learning; ladies and gentlemen.
Now there are several things that one could talk about before such a large, concerned, and enlightened audience. There are so many problems facing our nation and our world, that one could just take off anywhere. But today I would like to talk mainly about the race problems since I’ll have to rush right out and go to New York to talk about Vietnam tomorrow. and I’ve been talking about it a great deal this week and weeks before that.
But I’d like to use a subject from which to speak this afternoon, the Other America.
And I use this subject because there are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. And, in a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
In a sense, the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to little children. Little children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies. As we look at this other America, we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams. Many people of various backgrounds live in this other America. Some are Mexican Americans, some are Puerto Ricans, some are Indians, some happen to be from other groups. Millions of them are Appalachian whites. But probably the largest group in this other America in proportion to its size in the Population is the American Negro.
The American Negro finds himself living in a triple ghetto. A ghetto of race, a ghetto of poverty, a ghetto of human misery. So what we are seeking to do in the Civil Rights Movement is to deal with this problem. To deal with this problem of the two Americas. We are seeking to make America one nation, Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Now let me say that the struggle for Civil Rights and the struggle to make these two Americas one America, is much more difficult today than it was five or ten years ago. For about a decade or maybe twelve years, we’ve struggled all across the South in glorious struggles to get rid of legal, overt segregation and all of the humiliation that surrounded that system of segregation.
In a sense this was a struggle for decency; we could not go to a lunch counter in so many instances and get a hamburger or a cup of coffee. We could not make use of public accommodations. Public transportation was segregated, and often we had to sit in the back and within transportation – transportation within cities – we often had to stand over empty seats because sections were reserved for whites only. We did not have the right to vote in so many areas of the South. And the struggle was to deal with these problems.
And certainly they were difficult problems, they were humiliating conditions. By the thousands we protested these conditions. We made it clear that it was ultimately more honorable to accept jail cell experiences than to accept segregation and humiliation. By the thousands students and adults decided to sit in at segregated lunch counters to protest conditions there. When they were sitting at those lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and seeking to take the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Many things were gained as a result of these years of struggle. In 1964 the Civil Rights Bill came into being after the Birmingham movement which did a great deal to subpoena the conscience of a large segment of the nation to appear before the judgment seat of morality on the whole question of Civil Rights. After the Selma movement in 1965 we were able to get a Voting Rights Bill. And all of these things represented strides.
But we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing – conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.
It’s not merely a struggle against extremist behavior toward Negroes. And I’m convinced that many of the very people who supported us in the struggle in the South are not willing to go all the way now. I came to see this in a very difficult and painful way In Chicago the last year where I’ve lived and worked. Some of the people who came quickly to march with us in Selma and Birmingham weren’t active around Chicago. And I came to see that so many people who supported morally and even financially what we were doing in Birmingham and Selma, were really outraged against the extremist behavior of Bull Connor and Jim Clark toward Negroes, rather than believing in genuine equality for Negroes. And I think this is what we’ve gotta see now, and this is what makes the struggle much more difficult.
So as a result of all of this, we see many problems existing today that are growing more difficult. It’s something that is often overlooked, but Negroes generally live in worse slums today than 20 or 25 years ago. In the North schools are more segregated
today than they were in 1954 when the Supreme Court’s decision on desegregation was rendered. Economically the Negro Is worse off today than he was 15 and 20 years ago. And so the unemployment rate among Whites at one time was about the same as the unemployment rate among Negroes. But today the unemployment rate among Negroes is twice that of Whites. And the average income of the Negro is today 50% less than Whites.
As we look at these problems we see them growing and developing every day. We see the fact that the Negro economically is facing a depression in his everyday life that is more staggering than the depression of the 30’s. The unemployment rate of the nation as a whole is about 4%. Statistics would say from the Labor Department that among Negroes it’s about 8.4%. But these are the persons who are in the labor market, who still go to employment agencies to seek jobs, and so they can be calculated. The statistics can be gotten because they are still somehow in the labor market.
But there are hundreds of thousands of Negroes who have given up. They’ve lost hope. They’ve come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor for them with no Exit sign, and so they no longer go to look for a job. There are those who would estimate that these persons, who are called the Discouraged Persons, these 6 or 7% in the Negro community, that means that unemployment among Negroes may well be 16%. Among Negro youth in some of our larger urban areas it goes to 30 and 40%. So you can see what I mean when I say that, in the Negro community, there is a major, tragic and staggering depression that we face in our everyday lives.
Now the other thing that we’ve gotta come to see now that many of us didn’t see too well during the last ten years – that is that racism is still alive in American society. And much more wide-spread than we realized. And we must see racism for what it is. It is a myth of the superior and the inferior race. It is the false and tragic notion that one particular group, one particular race is responsible for all of the progress, all of the insights in the total flow of history. And the theory that another group or another race is totally depraved, innately impure, and innately inferior.
In the final analysis, racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide. Hitler was a sick and tragic man who carried racism to its logical conclusion. He ended up leading a nation to the point of killing about 6 million Jews. This is the tragedy of racism because its ultimate logic is genocide. If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him; if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.
To use a philosophical analogy here, racism is not based on some empirical generalization; it is based rather on an ontological affirmation. It is not the assertion that certain people are behind culturally or otherwise because of environmental conditions. It is the affirmation that the very being of a people is inferior. And this is the great tragedy of it.
I submit that however unpleasant it is we must honestly see and admit that racism is still deeply rooted all over America. It is still deeply rooted in the North, and it’s still deeply rooted in the South.
And this leads me to say something about another discussion that we hear a great deal, and that is the so-called ‘white backlash”. I would like to honestly say to you that the white backlash is merely a new name for an old phenomenon. It’s not something that just came into being because of shouts of Black Power, or because Negroes engaged in riots in Watts, for instance. The fact is that the state of California voted a Fair Housing bill out of existence before anybody shouted Black Power, or before anybody rioted in Watts.
It may well be that shouts of Black Power and riots in Watts and the Harlems and the other areas, are the consequences of the white backlash rather than the cause of them. What it is necessary to see is that there has never been a single solid monistic determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans on the whole question of Civil Rights and on the whole question of racial equality. This is something that truth impels all men of good will to admit.
It is said on the Statue of Liberty that America is a home of exiles. It doesn’t take us long to realize that America has been the home of its white exiles from Europe. But it has not evinced the same kind of maternal care and concern for its black exiles from Africa. It is no wonder that in one of his sorrow songs, the Negro could sing out. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. What great estrangement, what great sense of rejection caused a people to emerge with such a metaphor as they looked over their lives.
What I’m trying to get across is that our nation has constantly taken a positive step forward on the question of racial justice and racial equality. But over and over again at the same time, it made certain backward steps. And this has been the persistence of the so called white backlash.
In 1863 the Negro was freed from the bondage of physical slavery. But at the same time, the nation refused to give him land to make that freedom meaningful. And at that same period America was giving millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that America was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor that would make it possible to grow and develop, and refused to give that economic floor to its black peasants, so to speak.
This is why Frederick Douglas could say that emancipation for the Negro was freedom to hunger, freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, freedom without roofs to cover their heads. He went on to say that it was freedom without bread to eat, freedom without land to cultivate. It was freedom and famine at the same time. But it does not stop there.
In 1875 the nation passed a Civil Rights Bill and refused to enforce it. In 1964 the nation passed a weaker Civil Rights Bill and even to this day, that bill has not been totally enforced in all of its dimensions. The nation heralded a new day of concern for the poor, for the poverty stricken, for the disadvantaged. And brought into being a Poverty Bill and at the same time it put such little money into the program that it was hardly, and still remains hardly, a good skirmish against poverty. White politicians in suburbs talk eloquently against open housing, and in the same breath contend that they are not racist. And all of this, and all of these things tell us that America has been backlashing on the whole question of basic constitutional and God-given rights for Negroes and other disadvantaged groups for more than 300 years.
So these conditions, existence of widespread poverty, slums, and of tragic conniptions in schools and other areas of life, all of these things have brought about a great deal of despair, and a great deal of desperation. A great deal of disappointment and even bitterness in the Negro communities. And today all of our cities confront huge problems. All of our cities are potentially powder kegs as a result of the continued existence of these conditions. Many in moments of anger, many in moments of deep bitterness engage in riots.
Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impracticable for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.
But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
Now let me go on to say that if we are to deal with all of the problems that I’ve talked about, and if we are to bring America to the point that we have one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, there are certain things that we must do. The job ahead must be massive and positive. We must develop massive action programs all over the United States of America in order to deal with the problems that I have mentioned. Now in order to develop these massive action programs we’ve got to get rid of one or two false notions that continue to exist in our society. One is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. I’m sure you’ve heard this idea. It is the notion almost that there is something in the very flow of time that will miraculously cure all evils. And I’ve heard this over and over again. There are those, and they are often sincere people, who say to Negroes and their allies In the white community, that we should slow up and just be nice and patient and continue to pray, and in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out because only time can solve the problem.
I think there is an answer to that myth. And it is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that the forces of ill-will in our nation, the extreme rightists in our nation, have often used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words of the bad people and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time. Somewhere we must come to see that social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated Individuals. And without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always right to do right.
Now there’s another notion that gets out, it’s around everywhere. It’s in the South, it’s in the North, it’s In California, and all over our nation. It’s the notion that legislation can’t solve the problem, it can’t do anything in this area. And those who project this argument contend that you’ve got to change the heart and that you can’t change the heart through legislation. Now I would be the first one to say that there is real need for a lot of heart changing in our country, and I believe in changing the heart. I preach about it. I believe in the need for conversion in many Instances, and regeneration, to use theological terms. And I would be the first to say that If the race problem In America is to be solved, the white person must treat the Negro right, not merely because the law says it, but because it’s natural, because It’s right, and because the Negro is his brother. And so I realize that if we are to have a truly integrated society, men and women will have to rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable.
But after saying this, let me say another thing which gives the other side, and that is that although it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. Even though it may be true that the law cannot change the heart, it can restrain the heartless. Even though it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also. And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can and it does change the habits of men. And when you begin to change the habits of men, pretty soon the attitudes will be changed; pretty soon the hearts will be changed. And I’m convinced that we still need strong civil rights legislation. And there is a bill before Congress right now to have a national or federal Open Housing Bill. A federal law declaring discrimination in housing unconstitutional.
And also a bill to make the administration of justice real all over our country. Now nobody can doubt the need for this. Nobody can doubt the need if he thinks about the fact that since 1963 some 50 Negroes and white Civil Rights workers have been brutally murdered in the state of Mississippi alone, and not a single person has been convicted for these dastardly crimes. There have been some indictments but no one has been convicted. And so there is a need for a federal law dealing with the whole question of the administration of justice.
There is a need for fair housing laws all over our country. And it is tragic indeed that Congress last year allowed this bill to die. And when that bill died in Congress, a bit of democracy died, a bit of our commitment to justice died. If it happens again in this session of Congress, a greater degree of our commitment to democratic principles will die. And I can see no more dangerous trend in our country than the constant developing of predominantly Negro central cities ringed by white suburbs. This is only inviting social disaster. And the only way this problem will be solved is by the nation taking a strong stand, and by state governments taking a strong stand against housing segregation and against discrimination in all of these areas.
Now there’s another thing that I’d like to mention as I talk about the massive action program and time will not permit me to go into specific programmatic action to any great degree. But it must be realized now that the Negro cannot solve the problems by himself. There again, there are those who always say to Negroes, ‘Why don’t you do something for yourself? Why don’t you lift yourselves by your own bootstraps’? And we hear this over and over again.
Now certainly there are many things that we must do for ourselves and that only we can do for ourselves. Certainly we must develop within a sense of dignity and self-respect that nobody else can give us. A sense of manhood, a sense of personhood, a sense of not being ashamed of our heritage, not being ashamed of our color. It was wrong and tragic of the Negro ever to allow himself to be ashamed of the fact that he was black, or ashamed of the fact that his ancestral home was Africa. And so there is a great deal that the Negro can do to develop self respect. There is a great deal that the Negro must do and can do to amass political and economic power within his own community and by using his own resources. And so we must do certain things for ourselves but this must not negate the fact, and cause the nation to overlook the fact, that the Negro cannot solve the problem himself.
A man was on the plane with me some weeks ago and he came up to me and said, “The problem, Dr. King, that I see with what you all are doing is that every time I see you and other Negroes, you’re protesting and you aren’t doing anything for yourselves.” And he went on to tell me that he was very poor at one time, and he was able to make by doing something for himself. “Why don’t you teach your people” he said, “to lift themselves by their own bootstraps?”. And then he went on to say other groups faced disadvantages, the Irish, the Italian, and he went down the line.
And I said to him that it does not help the Negro, it only deepens his frustration, upon feeling insensitive people to say to him that other ethnic groups who migrated or were immigrants to this country less than a hundred years or so ago, have gotten beyond him and he came here some 344 years ago. And I went on to remind him that the Negro came to this country involuntarily in chains, while others came voluntarily. I went on to remind him that no other racial group has been a slave on American soil. I went on to remind him that the other problem we have faced over the years is that this society placed a stigma on the color of the Negro, on the color of his skin because he was black. Doors were closed to him that were not closed to other groups.
And I finally said to him that it’s a nice thing to say to people that you oughta lift yourself by your own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he oughta lift himself by his own bootstraps. And the fact is that millions of Negroes, as a result of centuries of denial and neglect, have been left bootless. They find themselves impoverished aliens in this affluent society. And there is a great deal that the society can and must do if the Negro is to gain the economic security that he needs.
Now one of the answers it seems to me, Is a guaranteed annual income, a guaranteed minimum income for all people, and for our families of our country. It seems to me that the Civil Rights movement must now begin to organize for the guaranteed annual income. Begin to organize people all over our country, and mobilize forces so that we can bring to the attention of our nation this need, and this is something which I believe will go a long long way toward dealing with the Negro’s economic problem and the economic problem which many other poor people confront in our nation. Now I said I wasn’t going to talk about Vietnam, but I can’t make a speech without mentioning some of the problems that we face there because I think this war has diverted attention from civil rights. It has strengthened the forces of reaction in our country and has brought to the forefront the military-industrial complex that even President Eisenhower warned us against at one time. And above all, it is destroying human lives. It’s destroying the lives of thousands of the young promising men of our nation. It’s destroying the lives of little boys and little girls In Vietnam.
But one of the greatest things that this war is doing to us in Civil Rights is that it is allowing the Great Society to be shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam every day. And I submit this afternoon that we can end poverty in the United States. Our nation has the resources to do it. The National Gross Product of America will rise to the astounding figure of some $780 billion this year. We have the resources: The question is, whether our nation has the will, and I submit that if we can spend $35 billion a year to fight an ill-considered war in Vietnam, and $20 billion to put a man on the moon, our nation can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.
Let me say another thing that’s more in the realm of the spirit I guess, that is that if we are to go on in the days ahead and make true brotherhood a reality, it is necessary for us to realize more than ever before, that the destinies of the Negro and the white man are tied together. Now there are still a lot of people who don’t realize this. The racists still don’t realize this. But it is a fact now that Negroes and whites are tied together, and we need each other. The Negro needs the white man to save him from his fear. The white man needs the Negro to save him from his guilt. We are tied together in so many ways, our language, our music, our cultural patterns, our material prosperity, and even our food are an amalgam of black and white.
So there can be no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not Intersect white groups. There can be no separate white path to power and fulfillment short of social disaster. It does not recognize the need of sharing that power with black aspirations for freedom and justice. We must come to see now that Integration Is not merely a romantic or esthetic something where you merely add color to a still predominantly white power structure. Integration must be seen also in political terms where there is shared power, where black men and white men share power together to build a new and a great nation.
In a real sense, we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. John Donne placed it years ago in graphic terms, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main: And he goes on toward the end to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I’m Involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee: And so we are all in the same situation: the salvation of the Negro will mean the salvation of the white man. And the destruction of life and of the ongoing progress of the Negro will be the destruction of the ongoing progress of the nation.
Now let me say finally that we have difficulties ahead but I haven’t despaired. Somehow I maintain hope in spite of hope. And I’ve talked about the difficulties and how hard the problems will be as we tackle them. But I want to close by saying this afternoon, that I still have faith in the future. And I still believe that these problems can be solved. And so I will not join anyone who will say that we still can’t develop a coalition of conscience.
I realize and understand the discontent and the agony and the disappointment and even the bitterness of those who feel that whites in America cannot be trusted. And I would be the first to say that there are all too many who are still guided by the racist ethos. And I am still convinced that there are still many white persons of good will. And I’m happy to say that I see them every day in the student generation who cherish democratic principles and justice above principle, and who will stick with the cause of justice and the cause of Civil Rights and the cause of peace throughout the days ahead. And so I refuse to despair. I think we’re gonna achieve our freedom because however much America strays away from the ideals of justice, the goal of America is freedom.
Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up in the destiny of America. Before the pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. Before the beautiful words of the Star Spangled Banner were written, we were here. For more than two centuries, our forebearers labored here without wages. They made cotton king. They built the homes of their masters in the midst of the most humiliating and oppressive conditions. And yet out of a bottomless vitality, they continued to grow and develop.
And I say that if the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face, including the so-called white backlash, will surely fail. We’re gonna win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.
And so I can still sing “We Shall Overcome”. We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right, “no lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right, “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne – Yet that scaffold sways the future”. 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 discourse of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the 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 live together as brothers and sisters, all over this great nation. That will be a great day, that will be a great tomorrow. In the words of the Scripture, to speak symbolically, that will be the day when the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.

End the War

April 13, 2008

When Martin Luther King, Jr. came out unequivocally against the war in Viet Nam, he was attacked from all sides, including strong criticism from many of his allies. They said that civil rights and peace didn’t mix, that he was hurting the cause of his own people. King responded that he understood their concerns, but nonetheless it saddened him. It saddened him, he said, because it meant that his allies didn’t really know him, and that they didn’t really know the world they lived in.

It’s easy to forget the revolutionary Martin Luther King when the dominant narrative—entombed in the gauzy haze of official memory—is such a sugary and uplifting story:

Once upon a time there were some mean white people (in the South) and some bad laws. But then a Saint came along and told us to love one another. He led a bus boycott, had a dream, gave a speech, and won a peace prize. Then, we were all better, and he got shot.

It’s sweet and simple, and in large part untrue. The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was an activist for just thirteen years, a loving and angry pilgrim in pursuit of justice, and he grew and changed dramatically each year of his journey. King’s speeches and sermons in the last years of his life are a chronicle of struggle, set-back, re-thinking, connecting issues, seeking new allies, going deeper, fighting harder.

In the last years of his life he was fighting explicitly for economic and global justice connected to racial justice. He spoke of the link between a rotting shack and a rotted-out democracy, between imperial ambitions abroad and betrayal of justice at home. He noted that the American soul was poisoned by war and racism, and raised the question of whether America would go to hell for her sins.

Concretely he said that the American people bore the greatest responsibility for ending the war since our government bore the responsibility for starting and sustaining it. He called the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and argued that he could not condemn desperate, angry young men who picked up guns until he first condemned his own government. He urged resistance to the war and counseled youngsters not to join the armed services. And he said the U.S. was on the wrong side of the world revolution, that we would need to rekindle a revolutionary spirit in order to create a “revolution in values”—against militarism and racism and extreme materialism—that could lead to restructuring our economic and social system top to bottom.

In the spirit of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. we have to dare to see the world as it really is, and then to choose justice over tribe or nation or petty self-interest. We need to organize and mobilize against illegal wars of conquest and domination, send a sharp warning right now as the powerful mobilize to bomb Iran under the banner of the same exhausted lies and rationalizations, and press the demand for peace in concrete terms:

1. Withdraw all mercenary forces immediately.

2. Set a date-certain—within three months—for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq and Afghanistan.

3. Dismantle all U.S. military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

4. Renounce all claims to the natural resources of Iraq.

5. Call for the creation of an independent international commission to assess and monitor the amount of reparations the U.S. owes to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is only a start, and it is still a choice—solidarity with all people, or endless war and death. As King reminded us, those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.