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.