This year I had the pleasure of hearing Joe Chuman speak at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on January 14th, the day before the Monday set aside to honor Martin Luther King. Joe’s topic was “The Radical Martin Luther King We Do Not Know”. He talked about Dr. King’s attraction to Democratic Socialism later in his life, his work to unite the white and black working class in common cause, and his staunch opposition to war, particularly the imperialist Vietnam War. Joe talked about the tendency to make those that we venerate with holiday observances acceptable, glossing over their controversial ideas that are not part of mainstream ideology, presenting an image that does not offend or challenge.
This reminded me of something that I wrote a few years back that I now share as my reflection on Martin Luther King Day. MLK Day 2005 I had the pleasure of being in St. Louis visiting my family on January 17th, the day set aside this year to celebrate the birthday and honor the vision and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was special to March from downtown to mid-town St. Louis with over one thousand others. It felt good to march next to my son David. I remembered walking next to my father in a march after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. It felt good to march with two members of the St. Louis Ethical Society in the crisp 9-degree sunshine and to take turns carrying the poles supporting the Ethical Society’s Ethical Action Committee banner.
It was appropriate that at the edge of downtown the route turned north to walk on Martin Luther King Boulevard, past half empty blocks of shuttered shops and whole blocks with only one or two row houses remaining. It was appropriate that the march began with a Civic Ceremony inside the historic Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott case was tried and slaves were once sold on its steps. The Civic Ceremony was complete with speeches by local politicians and community leaders. Although a “Civic Ceremony”, it included Christian scripture lessons and prayers. Many quoted “I have a dream,” and celebrated progress in the African American community. Others highlighted the challenges for civil rights today with particular focus on the problems experienced in the St. Louis school system. These are good and necessary things – but I felt that there was something missing. This was underscored for me when one of the Community Leaders, while calling us to take action in the schools, lamented that in our schools our children cannot pray to God. This struck me as contrary to the legacy of Martin Luther King. Dr. King was not about hollow expressions of public piety. He was about actions motivated by his religious experience. He was about coalitions for change. His vision of civil rights was not confined to those who shared his religious beliefs, or those who shared his race. His vision of civil rights was one of inclusion – encompassing differences in belief. His vision was a global vision that crossed boundaries of religion, race and nationality.
Listening to the speeches and reviewing the program, I was struck by something else. In the chronology of events listed in Dr. King’s life, along with the marches and the boycotts, was this entry: Feb. 1959 – Travels to India. I then realized what else was missing – Martin Luther King’s passionate commitment to non-violence and unwavering opposition to war. Dr. King believed that progress toward a just society was not possible while American Militarism pursued war abroad. War corrupted America’s “soul”. As controversial as Dr. King’s advocacy for civil rights was, his advocacy against the Vietnam War was even more controversial. He was a global advocate for peace. On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King spoke on "Beyond Vietnam," at Riverside Church, New York City: ... Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours. The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are all too obvious. Why were none of the speakers talking about nonviolence and war? I was disappointed that the celebration that I attended seemed to narrow the legacy of Martin Luther King. His views on civil rights are now more mainstream – worthy of accolades from civic leaders and politicians alike. His stands on violence and war remain controversial, too controversial to mention in a public ceremony honoring his life. Despite my disappointment, I was uplifted by singing a few verses of “We Shall Overcome” and left the courthouse to march in the cold in solidarity with others.