Martin Luther King and US Antiwar Activists

Every year at this time I, you, no one can escape a thousand quotes and references to the late Dr. If you hang out with antiwar activists, you’re probably thinking that I could be referring to any time of the year and you’d pretty much be right on. But the middle of January, even in antiwar activist circles, has a different character. in regards to King. What would Dr. King actually have to say to these folks that seemingly carry around a MLK quote book in their front pockets? Ever wonder what MLK would think about the people that evoke his name, message and legacy for this or that campaign they’re engaged in? Regarding antiwar activists, I think Dr. King would tolerate, not approve of, them.

I think he would agree with their vision of a world where huge war chests were turned loose on projects that really do speak to the common good; public education, equitable wages, doctor visits, good, affordable transportation accessible for everyone. I can’t imagine, however that Dr. King would approve of the tactics of the antiwar movement. Martin Luther King spoke out against the US war on Vietnam, something that wasn’t a particularly difficult thing to do, being one of a people that for centuries, suffered the casualties of war from the same enemy as the Viet Kong. Antiwar activists make a lot of hay over King’s opposition to the war. His principled stand against the war wasn’t what made him such a threat. Then, as now, the country’s rulers were very willing to contend and tolerate principled, nonviolent civilian objection to their destruction of Vietnamese society. Some have argued that they even liked and approved of the social democratic character antiwar dissenters gave to a society functioning no more democratically than dictatorship. But with our existence today under an almost complete and total US corporatocracy, elites now much more than in King’s day enjoy, if not require, the presence of antiwar activists as a part of the US cultural and communications landscape.

A thousand separate antiwar protests mean the same thing as our presidential elections. Nothing. But they both carry a huge and quite significant psychological payload, therefore they are both tolerated and in some instances, encouraged. I believe Dr. King would understand this. I think he understood it then. Which is why he met his death, not speaking against the US military destruction of the Vietnamese but standing with the sanitation workers in Memphis opposing US enslavement of workers inside the United States.

Speaking beautifully about a just world where Pentagon budgets were used for human and not corporate needs was not what got Dr. King shot and killed. Doing something about it was.

And this is why he would only tolerate the antiwar movement of today. And while King would, I believe tolerate antiwar activists, I don’t believe they would think even that kindly of Dr. King were he alive today. Of all the King quotes bandied about, the most fitting and appropriate is the one I have not once seen on a single antiwar activist leaflet and never will.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for someone else’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time

King’s crucial insight, borne inside the walls of a jail cell in Birmingham are the most on target, the most profound statement explaining the milieu then and now. Of all the ink spent in the last two or three years criticizing the US antiwar movement hardly worth the name, Dr. King, almost half a century ago, made the definitive statement identifying the mortal flaw of this movement. So while we march, hand in hand, today and enter into that period of the US year in which King Day and black history month come together for a month and a half long orgy of King quoting and eulogizing, perhaps the antiwar movement can make a change this year and begin remembering all the important lessons left behind by the good Dr. and not just the most convenient ones.


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