Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Incandescently Clear: Why the Mainstream Media Loathed Martin Luther King on Viet Nam

I'm treating myself to another exploration on God damning America, what is "correct" critique of a nation vs. "incorrect" critique, and why so many find it necessary to react as they have -- largely in ignorance of either history or theology -- to Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Folks expect Wright to be Obama's biggest "burden" as far as reaching mainstream America. By "folks," what I really mean is the media. And that pretty much frosts my cookies, especially the more I think and read about Dr. Martin Luther King and the media.

For a little context, let's see what the media was saying about Martin Luther King in 1967, just months before he would be gunned down in Memphis... and why they said it.

King had seen his biggest victories in the Civil Rights movement already. While those victories were being achieved, he'd felt that commenting on the building Viet Nam war was a bad idea. His advisors tended to agree with that sentiment.

But King could not remain silent any longer. April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, Martin Luther King spoke at New York's Riverside Church, entitling his comments "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."

Life Magazine labeled it "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi" and that Rev. King had moved "beyond his personal right to dissent." [1] (That an American could move "beyond his personal right to dissent" is a horribly fascinating idea -- and perhaps a sign that then and now are not as far apart as we might imagine.)

The Washington Post wrote about this same speech, "Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people." [2] King had become acceptable to mainstream media, if in part because his non-violent approach to achieving social justice was definitely preferable to increasing violence rooted directly in racial tensions.

So what did Martin say? He drew attention to the fact that pursuing "civil rights" within a nation involved in committing international violence against the poor worldwide was a self-defeating proposition. He pointed to the fact that his insistence upon non-violence in pursuing civil rights was in fact something he could not in good conscience promote as only the right of those within his own country. He underscored the unjust nature of the war in Vietnam as a war against a people who'd fought for their independence for decades. And finally, he called upon the power of love against violence (italics and bolding mine):

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word."

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..." We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

And MLK's remarks were blunt:

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It [America] can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.

Of course the media objected to all this. The uppity black man King had stepped out of his proper place. Time Magazine's April 28, 1967 issue, carried "The Dilemma of Dissent," in which King was criticized for his comments two weeks earlier as well as new comments he made while speaking to the United Nations:

[King in his U. N. speech] called the U.S. "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" and compared its use of new weapons in Viet Nam to Nazi medical experiments. Bunche and the N.A.A.C.P. had already criticized King's shift as a "serious tactical mistake." The Urban League's Whitney Young warned that "limited resources and personnel should not be diverted into other channels."

Bayard Rustin, who organized the successful March on Washington, voiced a disappointment felt by many Negroes. "There is not going to be a tremendous rush of Negroes into the peace movement," said Rustin. In fact, many Negroes have found service in Viet Nam valuable in proving their courage—a quantity whose fierce abundance has never before been tapped in American armed combat quite so effectively.

Long the nation's most respected advocate of Negro advancement, King—a Nobel Peace Prizewinner—had held himself aloof from such demagogic "Black Power" advocates as S.N.C.C.'s Stokely Carmichael and CORE's Floyd McKissick. Indeed, King once vowed never to stand on the same platform with Carmichael as long as he spouted an anti-white line. By joining the Spring Mobilization, King reneged on that vow —and possibly on the entire cause of nonviolent Negro advancement.

At the U.N., King admitted that 10 million Americans at most "explicitly oppose the war," but said that they included many of "our deepest thinkers in the academic and intellectual community." Building to a sonorous peroration, he cried: "Let us save our national honor—stop the bombing. Let us save American lives and Vietnamese lives-stop the bombing. Let us take a single instantaneous step to the peace table—stop the bombing. Let our voices ring out across the land to say the American people are not vainglorious conquerors —stop the bombing." Through it all ran the theme that America, "which initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world," is now "an arch counter-revolutionary nation."

King, despite the media critique, did not stop. He did not stop his fight against the Viet Nam War. He did not stop with his plans for a poor people's march on Washington, that would have enlarged the Civil Rights vision to include what has always undergirded racism in America: economics. He did not stop until on April 4, 1968, he was stopped forever by one bullet.

Today, Martin Luther King has become an American icon, and justly so. But in making him an icon we also have white-washed his critique of America, of our adventurism and Imperialism, of our forgetfulness of the poor and dispossessed. We have forgotten just how harshly he was treated by our nation -- the majority of us and majority of our media -- while alive.

Martin Luther King told us things we did not want to hear, and right when we'd half-swallowed down his message (which was spoken in truth but also love), he'd enlarge the message to include more painful things we didn't want to hear.

Only a month or so before his death, Martin Luther King gave another speech, more like a sermon really. It was called "The Drum Major Instinct," and is a profoundly Christian speech. But -- again -- he spoke to our nation's coming judgement before the Lord:

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. "I must be first." "I must be supreme." "Our nation must rule the world." (Preach it cries someone from the audience.) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I'm going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. (Amen) The God that I worship has a way of saying, "Don't play with me." (Yes) He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, "Don’t play with me, Israel. Don't play with me, Babylon. (Yes) Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power." (Yes) And that can happen to America. (Yes) Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening.

I'm frightened, too, Dr. King, these forty years after your death. I'm saddened and disheartened. I see in the Jeremiah Wright controversy -- and especially the media's treatment of that controversy -- the same sort of wide-eyed, dangerous naivety being exhibited by the mainstream media as was exhibited forty years ago. I live in a country where an unjust war kills American soldiers by the thousands and Iraqi civilians by the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands. I do know God is not mocked, as the Word says, and whatever a man or nation of men sows, that shall they also reap. Will we not be judged, and harshly, for these crimes, which had nothing to do with others attacking us on 9/11?

No, I do not think Jeremiah Wright is on the level of greatness Martin Luther King was. But neither do I think King was the simple, meek-and-mild man we've turned him into via the American mythos. Martin Luther King's last few years were years of increasing depression and realization that the civil rights marches had only begun a process rooted in realities far deeper and more pernicious than his younger, more optomistic self had imagined.

Why are the Jeremiah Wrights still angry? Why, for that matter, are white blue collar workers in Pennsylvania angry and even "bitter" about what has happened to them? Why are young people in this nation so energized against a self-professed Evangelical Christian President? Because of his faith... or because of the lack of his faith? Perhaps it all goes back to President Bush stating, not long after 9/11, that America was going to destroy Evil. That manifestly non-christian concept, that evil lies outside of us, somewhere else, became the cornerstone of the so-called "War on Terror," a war in which many Iraqi mothers of dead children, dead husbands, and dead hope view as a war on humanity. Or perhaps it is the same deafness Washington and much of the media display toward true poverty and marginalization of people of all colors, those whom Martin wanted to march on Washington all those years ago before he was cut down.

Martin Luther King and Jeremiah Wright rooted their comments in a biblical vision which ultimately critiques any and all nation-states. So, when we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we must not celebrate him exclusively or even primarily as a comfortable, optomistic hero. The man was a man, and spoke words that -- except for the name of the war being "Viet Nam" instead of "Iraq" -- could be respoken today verbatim and carry nearly the same meaning and impact. Would he have said, "God damn America"? No. But Dr. King certainly would, and did, basically say that God will damn America if she does not turn. And the terrible truth is, we have not turned. We are still, as Dr. King charged then, "criminals in that war" and "the supreme culprit."

Can we hear this great prophet, and other lesser prophets who echo to us the same message we have yet to truly hear or heed? I pray so... otherwise, it won't matter much who is the President of our nation.

[I may or may not post further on this topic; it seems to have me by the short hairs, but there are some other things I need to blog -- and to do elsewhere.]

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