Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
We will again live through the endless repetitions of his inspiring speeches about having a dream of eventual racial equality, about letting freedom ring from all corners of this nation, and about not reaching that point in history with us.
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What we won't hear are the thoughts he expressed in the 18 months or so before his death, words that then were considered unpatriotic, and that would still be characterized that way today.
”I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice,“ King began in what has become known as his ”Beyond Vietnam“ speech.
On April 4, 1967, a year before his death, King addressed a group of clergymen in New York who were opposed to the war in Vietnam and not only came out against the war, but linked the injustice of that war to the civil rights movement.
He challenged the clergy and lay people to continue to fight for peace even though it was an unpopular battle.
”Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.“
When was the last time you heard or read those words during the celebration of King's birthday or the anniversary of his death?
As beloved as current schoolchildren think King is, he was quickly transformed by the media in the late 1960s from a righteous civil rights activist to an irresponsible Hanoi lover once he came out unflinchingly against the Vietnam War. But his words could easily apply today.
”We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.“
News outlets that had once been staunchly behind his anti-segregation movement denounced him harshly for his opposition to war and what he termed U.S. imperialism.
The Washington Post wrote: ”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.“
But the media weren't the only former allies to distance themselves from such controversial rhetoric.
Neither the NAACP or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would go along with King's condemnation of the war. Ministers and politicians alike thought he had gone too far.
That didn't stop him.
”A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.“
King thought that human rights should be right for all humans, not just Americans. And, in 1967, he called the United States ”the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.“
Is there any doubt that those words would be replayed time and time again over the radio and on TV?
King did more than dream of a better world. He tried to prepare this country for it.
The night before he died in Memphis, King spoke of economic justice, telling blacks to boycott Coca Cola, Sealtest milk, Wonder Bread and Hart's Bread in that city because of the unfair hiring practices of those companies in 1968.
He told young men of draft age to become conscientious objectors rather than join the military. And he began organizing the poor into a political force that the federal government would have to deal with.
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who was a King aide, said King never expected the response his words received. ”Martin gave a brilliant rationale for his position on the war in Vietnam,“ Young said. ”And as a Nobel Prize winner, we expected people to take it seriously and not to agree with it, but to disagree with certain specifics. We didn't get that. We got, instead, an emotional outburst attacking his right to have an opinion. It was almost, you know, "(N-word), you ought to stay in your place.'“
On April 30, 1967, in Atlanta, King said:
”God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now. 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.“
Maybe instead of sanitizing King, instead of reducing him to a few feel-good words, this nation could take stock of who we are and what we have become.
On Friday, while remembering all the other things King is known for, try to guess what this country would be like had he lived.