Martin Luther King Jr. 56 years ago stated a point more relevant today than a half century ago: The systemic flaws of America have incubated the "giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism."
This MLK Jr. Day was so deemed by Congress in 1994 to mark the holiday as “a national day of service.” Martin Luther King was born Jan. 15, 1929. I’ve done plenty of community service projects with students over the 29 years of the day’s relevance: river cleanups, working in food kitchens, getting blankets and tents to homeless folk, cleaning up graffiti, and having teach-ins and drive-by photo shoots of neighborhoods.
Here’s this German-Irish white guy (me) today writing about the power of not just King and his activism, but the power of so many people in the civil rights and anti-racist movement who transformed my point of view on so many global and national social justice issues. In addition, King for me would not be so vaunted without my study of Malcolm X. Or Paul Robeson, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, and so many activists in the Black Liberation Movement.
For this county (with 89.1 percent white, .09 percent African American, 1.5 percent Asian, and then 4.1 percent American Indian and Alaska Native), the concept of not just celebrating King, but drilling down deeply into what he represents might fall on deaf ears. Putting him into historical context, i.e. learning about those around him before he rose to fame and afterward, adds to the value of King’s prominence.
I had a father who was shot in Korea as a 19 year old and then in Vietnam as a 36 year old. He was in two branches of military as a regular uniformed soldier; for 32 years total. He was always supportive of my journalism, my teaching, my college pursuits, but more importantly, he backed me on my activism. He was a student of history, and the history I embraced wasn’t what mainstream historians were delving into.
For example: Cesar Chavez and his work — National Farm Workers Association, which later merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to become the United Farm Workers labor union. John Trudell, son of a Santee Dakota father and a Mexican mother, who was a poet, songwriter, performer and activist.
In this county and in other places, just what does it mean to a majority of the country to give pause around King’s work? The “I Have a Dream” speech will be played in parts, over and over. I have emphasized his letter to clergy and other white leaders, in his jailhouse essay titled, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written in longhand April 15, 1963.
King’s letter: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known.”
He also penned from the jail, “The Negro is Your Friend.”
This third Monday in January marks the birth of Dr. King Jr. We need to go beyond a few lines played back from the “Dream” speech or some of the black and white images of his 1963 march on Washington.
Throughout my college teaching — in heavily military populated El Paso, Tucson, Las Cruces, and Spokane, including instruction on military bases and posts — I got students to think deeper about King’s life, work and teachings. Having students read, analyze and discuss his April 4, 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, delivered at New York's Riverside Church a year to the day before he was assassinated, I ended up rallying sophisticated critiques of King’s impact on the USA.
It was the Vietnam War in King’s time, but my students were facing the Panama Invasion, Grenada, Kuwait, Iraq, contras in Nicaragua, dirty U.S.-backed wars in Guatemala, Afghanistan, and so many other so-called interventions and these proxy wars. Some were Vietnam and Korea combat veterans.
This speech was eviscerated by mainstream press, including the New York Times and dozens of large daily newspapers. That was the point of having this speech and the jail speech looked at and parsed — self-critique as a people, as a nation.
King's first point in drawing the connection between ending racism at home and curbing militarism abroad had to do with the waste of precious resources: "I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube."
My father was his soldiers’ advocate, having verbally defied some of the businesses in the South that refused to serve his fellow uniformed men in the Big Red One (Latino and Black Americans).
I never got to challenge my CW4 father with so much of history I absorbed. For instance, Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates that the United States is militarily still engaged in 85 countries, enabling or prosecuting wars in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and beyond. Maintaining over 750 overseas military bases have unfortunately spun spending for military purposes out of control, more than at the height of the Vietnam or Korean Wars.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would be expounding against the state of our foreign and domestic policies, and would despair at all this war mongering, especially now with China in America’s sights. An arms race with China is anathema to King’s hopes and dreams of a socially, economically and culturally just world.
King was the antiwar preacher, and he is so right about those triplets — militarism, materialism and racism.
Paul K. Haeder is a novelist, journalist, educator and author of “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” Cirque Press.