by Don DeBar
Fifteen quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are carved into his memorial on the Washington Mall, but perhaps his harshest indictment of the United States is absent: “…I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.” The omission is glaring at a time when the U.S. is engaged in even more wars than during Dr. King’s era. “Nor is there any mention that America's wars are the cause of economic hardship at home.”
The Missing Quote from the King Memorial
by Don DeBar
"The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own Government...I cannot be silent." – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“President Barack Obama invoked the words of Dr. King – some of them – without even mentioning war.”
While the insiders in Washington parse the meaning of the paraphrased words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. regarding his own epitaph, his true legacy – the one that many believe led to his murder – has been whitewashed from the King Memorial entirely.
Speaking at the Riverside Church in New York City, exactly one year – to the day – before he was shot and killed in Memphis, Dr. King announced that he was expanding his focus on America's national shame of segregation to include its international crime of war on the people of Vietnam:
"(I)n the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers, (a)s I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- 'what about Vietnam?' They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
The King Memorial lists a total of 15 direct quotes and a paraphrase (currently in controversy) from Dr. King's words; yet, curiously, this particular quote - which ties together the struggle for social and economic justice at home with the actions of the government abroad in an elegant and profound way - did not make the list.
“His true legacy – the one that many believe led to his murder – has been whitewashed from the King Memorial.”
Here are the quotes that appear on the Inscription Wall of the Memorial:
"We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." (16 August 1967, Atlanta, GA)
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." (1963, Strength to Love)
"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant." (10 December 1964, Oslo, Norway)
"Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in." (18 April 1959, Washington, DC)
"I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world." (25 February 1967, Los Angeles, CA)
"If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective." (24 December 1967, Atlanta, GA)
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." (16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL)
"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits." (10 December 1964, Oslo, Norway)
"It is not enough to say 'We must not wage war.' It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace." (24 December 1967, Atlanta, GA)
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." (25 February 1967, Los Angeles, CA)
"Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies." (4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York, NY)
"We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs 'down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'" (5 December 1955, Montgomery, AL)
"We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience." (16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL)
"True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice." (16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL)
Within the list, there is one quote which deals directly with the Vietnam war, two that deal directly with war, and others that deal, in one way or another, with issues of war and peace in general. One is lifted from the Riverside speech.
Inscribed on the Stone of Hope are two statements – one, a direct quote, the other, the paraphrase of his words that is at the center of the present controversy:
The first, from the "I Have a Dream" speech, is "Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope"-the quotation that serves as the basis for the monument's design. The words on the other side of the stone read, "I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness," which is a paraphrased version of a longer quote by King: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter." The memorial's use of the paraphrased version of the quote has been criticized (Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._Memorial#Inscriptions).
Nowhere on the monument is there any mention of Dr. King's clearly-stated indictment of American foreign policy as being intrinsically evil (above); nor is there any mention that America's wars are the cause of economic hardship at home:
"There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."
At the dedication of the King Monument last October, President Barack Obama invoked the words of Dr. King – some of them – without even mentioning war:
"When met with hardship, when confronting disappointment, Dr. King refused to accept what he called the 'is-ness' of today. He kept pushing towards the 'ought-ness' of tomorrow.
"And so, as we think about all the work that we must do –- rebuilding an economy that can compete on a global stage, and fixing our schools so that every child -- not just some, but every child -- gets a world-class education, and making sure that our health care system is affordable and accessible to all, and that our economic system is one in which everybody gets a fair shake and everybody does their fair share, let us not be trapped by what is. We can’t be discouraged by what is. We’ve got to keep pushing for what ought to be, the America we ought to leave to our children, mindful that the hardships we face are nothing compared to those Dr. King and his fellow marchers faced 50 years ago, and that if we maintain our faith, in ourselves and in the possibilities of this nation, there is no challenge we cannot surmount."
Obama even went so far as to impute to Dr. King words that, if the record is any indication, are mere sterile parodies of the words of this Nobel Peace Prize winning minister:
"If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there; that the businessman can enter tough negotiations with his company’s union without vilifying the right to collectively bargain. He would want us to know we can argue fiercely about the proper size and role of government without questioning each other’s love for this country -- with the knowledge that in this democracy, government is no distant object but is rather an expression of our common commitments to one another. He would call on us to assume the best in each other rather than the worst, and challenge one another in ways that ultimately heal rather than wound."
Not a word about "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" – this is particularly odd when one considers that the US is now currently involved in more war and destruction, in more places and involving more people, weaponry and expense, than at the time Dr. King uttered those words in 1967.
As to the shared status with the President as a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, in contrast to the Commander-in-Chief's actions over the past three years, Dr. King said:
"I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for 'the brotherhood of man.' This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men -- for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?"
Quite a different interpretation of the charge that comes with joining the company of other Nobel Peace Prize winners than that demonstrated by the man who sat silent during the siege of Gaza ("Only one President at a time"), expanded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into Pakistan, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and, soon, Iran. Could we imagine Dr. King conducting - or sanctioning - a six-month bombing campaign for "humanitarian reasons"? Or might he instead feel compelled to speak out:
"And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
"They must see Americans as strange liberators."
"Strange liberators," indeed...
Don DeBar is a journalist and political activist residing in Ossining, NY. He currently serves as senior producer for WBAIX.org, an internet news and public events outlet featuring progressive producers who were purged from Pacifica Radio.