Given the raging debate over Iraq, it’s not surprising that on this particular Martin Luther King holiday, various observers are drawing parallels between King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and today’s anti-Iraq War movement. The most striking example was John Edwards’ direct evocation of King’s signature anti-war speech at New York’s Riverside Church nearly forty years ago–delivered by Edwards yesterday from the same pulpit, in which he called on Democrats to show moral fortitude by cutting off funding for an increased troop deployment in Iraq.Entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence,” King’s sermon was indeed about a lot more than the Vietnam War. And the “silence” he spoke of did not refer simply to reluctance to oppose the war–the anti-war movement was, after all, fully underway in 1967–but to those who in his view refused to see or talk about the connections between oppression of African-Americans in this country and oppression of “Asians, Africans and Latin Americans” by the United States and its allies in the name of the Cold War.From what we know of the historical context for King’s Riverside sermon, he was likely conducting a sort of two-front offensive aimed at two very different sets of critics of his leadership within the civil rights movement. On one side were those who urged him to mute his growing criticism of LBJ’s foreign policy–and even some aspects of domestic policy–as a distraction from the civil rights cause, and as a corrosive influence on establishment liberal support for that cause. And on the other side were more radical civil rights voices–e.g., Malcolm X and some of the early SNCC firebrands–who wanted to discard King’s strict policy of nonviolent protest. For King, the response to both was to underline the necessity of nonviolent social progress at home and abroad.What comes across from a reading of the sermon today is its consistent radicalism. Yes, King made some prudential arguments against the Vietnam War, including the resources it sapped from domestic priorities, the war’s disparate impact on minorities, and its essential futility in terms of conditions on the ground in Vietnam itself. But King’s real mission was a root-and-branch attack on the fundamental assumptions of Cold War liberalism. Calling the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” King unsubtly suggested that his country had gotten itself on the wrong side of a “world revolution” for political and economic self-determination in which leadership had often been tacitly ceded to communists:
All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated.
The Riverside sermon is a sharp reminder that the core of King’s public ministry was the rigorous advocacy of a Gandhian nonviolence philosophy that he believed to be a practical extension of he Gospel of Jesus Christ. Reading it anew, I have little doubt that if MLK were alive and active today, he would not just be calling for a “redeployment” of U.S. troops from the Iraq civil war, but would be challenging the entire framework of the war with jihadist terrorism, including the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.I wouldn’t personally agree with him on that broader vision of world events, any more than I would have agreed with him that the Cold War was essentially the product of U.S. arrogance and militarism. But there’s not much point in honoring King’s memory without grappling with the full and (to use his own word) “disturbing” integrity of his prophetic stance.Progressives have long deplored the tendency of conservatives to selectively quote from King’s writings, and to use them to support policies (e.g., “color-blind” opposition to affirmative action measures) that arguably would subvert everything he fought for. But progressives need to beware of a similar, if more benign, temptation to quote King out of context. Citing MLK’s Riverside sermon as moral authority for demanding that Democrats support a cut-off of funding for an expansion of the U.S. presence in Iraq is a bit like citing the Sermon on the Mount in talking points for a minimum wage increase. It’s true as far as it goes, but it misses the larger points, and reduces prophecy to politics.