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COMMENTARY: What Would Martin Luther King Jr. Have to Say About the War in Iraq

Posted by kinchendavid on January 17, 2007

By Nick Patler

Staunton, VA  – The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was supposed to stick with civil rights and perhaps other domestic problems. These were the issues he was qualified to speak about — at least that is what many thought, including the national press, white politicians and even some black leaders after he began to ruffle feathers with his fiery eloquence opposing the Vietnam War.

Indeed, some critics were so disturbed by King’s anti-war criticism that they launched scurrilous attacks against his credibility and tried to publicly humiliate him. He was ridiculed and assailed, often ferociously, by the mainstream press; cursed by President Lyndon Johnson; criticized by politicians and scolded by friends and colleagues, including many fellow civil rights activists.

The most celebrated black leader in the world, who a few years earlier had led the nonviolent struggle to end Southern segregation in America and who had been awarded the distinguished Nobel Peace Prize, found himself with few friends in the lonely wilderness of anti-war activism.

But King proved to be as resilient here as he had been in that Birmingham jail, where his courage and determination to free his people from Jim Crow was forged with fiery conviction. Withdrawing temporarily amidst verbal attacks, he re-emerged bolder and more confident to speak out against the Vietnam War. This time, however, the civil rights leader turned anti-war activist (the lesser-known King) began to passionately inspire a consensus. A little more than a year later in 1968, as the tide of opposition to the war mounted, he was assassinated.

If King were alive today, what would he say about the war in Iraq? I believe he would say the same things he had said about the tragic war in Vietnam.

He would certainly have had the courage to oppose the status quo, even if it meant standing alone, drawing strength from his deep faith, the righteousness of his cause and compassion to uplift others. And the famous preacher may have very well used the same religious tone and language to condemn the war in Iraq as he did the war in Vietnam. For example, in one of his last sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King emphasized with moral fervor that God “didn’t call America to do what she is doing today … God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war.”

The embattled leader would have strongly condemned the surging violence in Iraq and would have been vehement in publicly opposing President Bush’s plan to increase troops by 20,000. He would have undoubtedly expressed genuine sorrow at the loss of so many precious American and Iraqi lives, as he did for the Vietnamese and Americans, and work diligently and creatively for an end to the war.

The introspective King would have re-examined more deeply the unspoken reasons why we really are in Iraq and would probably have drawn similar conclusions as he did for U.S. interests in Vietnam. Here he would have emphasized that America’s true interests in Iraq and the Middle East are to maintain power and prestige, along with access to resources, at the expense of all else. And King would have been quick to point out, as he did in regard to Vietnam, that these actions, which are carried out by means of destructive violence and coercion, were inconsistent with democracy and humanitarianism.

Finally, the controversial leader, I believe, would have doggedly created awareness that the war in Iraq (and U.S. weapons industry) “steals” resources, energies and brainpower that could be used instead to solve the critical problems of those suffering from poverty, hunger, disease, and violence — the theme of his most well-known anti-war speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” which he delivered at New York’s famed Riverside Church exactly a year before his death.

Whether it was Vietnam, poverty, racial injustice, or economic inequality, King’s motivation to address all of these issues and others in his lifetime essentially reflected his burning desire to “love and serve humanity.” I have no doubt that if he were alive and able, he would be doing the same today, regardless of the mountains that might be standing in his way.

* * *

Nick Patler is the author of “Jim Crow and the Wilson Administration: Protesting Federal Segregation in the Early Twentieth Century.” Readers may e-mail him at nickpatler@hotmail.com This article originally appeared in the Staunton (VA) News Leader, and is reprinted by permission of the News Leader.

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