MLK Day: Dreams and nightmares
By Robert Jensen
Published in CounterPunch · January, 2006
In Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous speech, he had a dream.
But in another of King’s important addresses, he faced the depth of our nightmare.
We all know the famous words — “I have a dream” — delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
On this day that we mark with his name, all over this country, that speech will be played, as it should be. King articulated — perhaps more eloquently than anyone had to that point — the demand that the United States make good on the American dream, for all its citizens.
But on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, in a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam,” King spoke just as eloquently of the nightmare that lies underneath that dream. In that speech to Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, King not only made a compelling case for ending the U.S. attack on Vietnam, but went beyond that to diagnose a failed society.
On this day that we mark with his name, we owe it to King — and to ourselves — to face that failure honestly.
This might sound crazy in a world in which the United States dominates as no nation has ever dominated. After all, we won the Cold War. We are the largest economy in the world. Our cultural products circulate everywhere. The world fears our military. We are the most affluent nation in the history of the world. And we have a black secretary of state. A failed society? The United States? To borrow from a younger generation, “We rule!”
Yes, we rule, sort of, for a time. But we also are a failed society, a society heading toward collapse. We might remember that nothing looks quite as invincible as a great army on the morning of its greatest defeat.
The majority of King’s Riverside speech was dedicated to an analysis of the Vietnam War and an argument for a political settlement of that conflict. Although many wanted him to avoid the controversial subject of the war, King said he was moved “to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart,” to go “beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”
When he did that, King reached a difficult conclusion, that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” was “my own government.” He saw what imperial war does not only to the target, to those on whom the bombs fall, but also to the aggressor society: “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned,” King said, “part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”
We might pause to consider what that means for us today, as the United States fights another imperial war, this one in the Middle East. If we were to go beyond a “smooth patriotism” and let conscience guide us to a “firm dissent,” what actions are required of us?
But I want to put aside for now the issue of wars, past and present, and speak of King’s deeper analysis in that speech. He knew that simply condemning that war was “seductively tempting,” but that his principles demanded that he “go on now to say something even more disturbing.” King was blunt: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” a condition that had left the United States “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” He continued:
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
“Our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.”
In short, Martin Luther King Jr. saw that the task of the United States was not simply to transcend racism. He saw racism as inextricably connected to militarism and materialism. And he saw a hyperpatriotic nationalism not as virtue but as a problem to be overcome.
So, we find ourselves today in an odd place: In a country in which we routinely repeat the phrase “God bless America” with no sense of shame; in which conventional politicians all clamor to be “tough” on national security and support bloated military budgets; in which the shopping mall is the real temple where people go to worship — in that country, King is a hero. That means the King who condemned not only racism but nationalism, militarism, and materialism has to be pushed aside, forgotten — “whitewashed,” if you’ll allow the term. King’s radical political analysis and vision have to be rendered invisible if we are to name a holiday after him. After years of calling him a traitor and a troublemaker, white America is willing to allow King is to serve as the icon for a national quest for racial justice, but only so long as we don’t actually listen to what he had to say or take it seriously.
None of this is surprising; it’s the nature of power: When faced with demands for justice by a movement of oppressed people, dominant groups tend to concede only as much as necessary to relieve the pressure. When enough time has passed and the threat to the system has been contained, then the importance of the movement and some of its leaders can be acknowledged, but only if their legacy can be constructed in a way that doesn’t undermine the existing distribution of power.
The nature of privilege is to ignore these realities when they make us uncomfortable. We white people have that privilege. We have that privilege because we live in a white-supremacist society. It is true that the United States made enormous progress on race in the last half of the 20th century, but we still live in a white-supremacist society. What do I mean by that?
By “white supremacist,” I mean a society whose founding is based in an ideology of the inherent superiority of white Europeans over non-whites, an ideology that was used to justify the inhuman crimes against indigenous people and Africans that created the nation and its wealth, an ideology that also has justified legal and extralegal exploitation of every non-white immigrant group in our history.
By “white supremacist,” I also mean a material reality. Forty years after the victories of the civil-rights movement that ended legal segregation, dramatic racialized disparities in wealth and well-being endure. On some measures, such as family income and unemployment, the gap between white and black America is wider today than it was in the immediate aftermath of the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. On other measures where there has been some progress, such as home ownership, closing the gap will take decades or centuries if current trends continue.
This is a society in which white people occupy most of the top positions in powerful institutions, with similar privileges available in limited ways to non-white people if they fit themselves into white society. It is a society in which many white people hold to that supremacist ideology, believing the culture, politics, philosophy, and art that comes out of white Europe to be superior to all others (even if they won’t admit in public that they believe this).
If white America were truly interested in racial justice, would we not ask, simply, “why?” Why do so many still believe that? Why are the racialized disparities still with us?
We don’t ask because the answer is all too clear and painful: Most white folks don’t much care, and privilege allows us not to care.
What will it take for the United States to transcend white supremacy? It seems obvious that it requires a revolution. But what kind? King called for “a true revolution of values” based in a rejection of the fundamental injustice of the systems in which we live. In King’s words:
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: This is not just.”
“A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: This way of settling differences is not just. This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.”
In 1967, King laid it out clearly: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” In 2006, that spiritual death is closer than ever, as it is clearer than ever that it is not “military defense” on which we spend but “military offense.”
At some level, I believe we all know this to be true. We all know the grotesque and widening inequality — within our own society and between the First and the Third worlds — cannot continue indefinitely. We know that the belligerent militarism designed to secure resources cannot continue indefinitely. At some level, somewhere within us all, we know that the path this society is on is not the road up to a better future, but a spiral down to something that will look like hell made real in the world. We rule, for now. But how long can that continue?
We know the cost to the world of the quest for domination. About half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and a quarter on less than $1 a day. Iraqis count their dead in the tens — perhaps hundreds — of thousands as a result of U.S. liberation. Those are the bills being paid elsewhere.
What of the cost to us? What of our spiritual death?
The shopping malls are full. Does it fulfill our longing for community? Does it make us feel loved?
We “support the troops.” Does it fulfill our obligations to the world? Does it make us safe?
What judgment would Martin Luther King Jr. render if he were with us today? Lucky for us, we don’t have to face that. The great thing about dead heroes is that they can’t speak. The theologian and historian Vincent Harding quotes a poem by Carl Wendell Hines:
Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
But, of course, it doesn’t matter what King would say. It matters what we say, and — as King always pointed out — it matters what we do.
If you live in privilege, as I do, one thing is for sure: You haven’t done enough. I haven’t done enough. We haven’t done enough. If we had, this world would look very different than it does.
We all carry that burden, one that is more than we should have to face. In this world, it should be enough to just be a decent person — to work hard, treat folks around us fairly, care for those we love. That’s difficult enough in a world full of disappointment, disease, and death. Just being an ordinary person is hard enough.
But at this moment in history, being decent in our private lives is not enough. There is too much at stake, and too little time to correct the course. We face crises on all fronts: Political, economic, cultural, and most dramatically, ecological. We cannot know how much time is left before destructive forces set in motion cannot be turned back. We should be scared, and that fear should motivate us.
King was scared. In the new book, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, Taylor Branch writes about how King was tired and struggling with depression in the last months of his life. I believe King understood how little time there was, not just for him but for us all.
So, we have to face what one writer has called “the long emergency.” There can be no illusions about the nature of the struggle required to create a different world, a world based not on domination but on a new communion among peoples. The choice still remains the one King asked us to face: “nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
Privilege makes it easy to hide, but soon there will be no hiding from the need to act. To turn from this knowledge of the world and its demands on those of us with privilege is to turn from the values of justice and equality that we claim to hold. Worse than that, it is to turn away from our own humanity. And if the call to justice, the yearning for our own humanity isn’t motivation enough, realize this: Soon, to hide will be to resign ourselves to that hell on earth that we are creating.
To act is to have faith, in ourselves and in the possibility that there is time. If King were alive today, we can be sure he would ask that of us. And we can look to King’s words on that April night in New York in 1967 for a reminder of what fate awaits us if we turn away:
“If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
If we act, there is no guarantee that we can make right all that has been torn asunder. We cannot wait for certainty, but must act out of love, with hope. It is through our action that we learn to love and feel hope. That action is the way we make love real in the world and find hope in our hearts.
I don’t pretend to know what King would say if he were alive today. I don’t know what analysis he would offer or what strategy he would propose. But he would certainly challenge all of us to act — every one of us here today, everyone in this country, which has the opportunity to turn its power away from wealth and war, toward justice and peace. Whatever else King would say, he would say this:
Act. Now. Before the only path before us is that long, dark, shameful corridor, which ends at a door we should all pray is never opened.