The Martin Luther King Jr. America has ignored
On Monday, the United States will celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. We will hear stories of his battles with segregation, his eloquent speech in Washington, and his fight for voting rights. This is the King with whom America is comfortable. These are the aspects of his life that we embrace and honor - because they are the safe parts.Skip to next paragraph
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America's commemoration of King's vision is only partial. King's life encompassed more than simply his moving rhetoric and desegregated lunch counters. The politics King espoused toward the end of his life - and the part that America has effectively ignored - may provide some invaluable lessons, given the current international climate.
King became a vocal critic of US foreign policy, denouncing America's "giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism," and calling the US "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Across the globe, from Vietnam to Asia to Latin America, King believed the US was "on the wrong side of a world revolution."
What, then, would King make of our current war on terrorism? Although terrorism poses historically new and unique threats, communism in King's time presented an equally menacing peril. As a man who told his followers to "love your enemies," it is doubtful that he would embrace the war fever that has gripped this nation since Sept. 11, 2001. How to reconcile King's belief in "turning the other cheek" with President Bush's doctrine of preemptive strikes?
It is equally unlikely that King, who warned that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," would support the huge price tag of our war with Iraq, especially when Iraq's link to the events of Sept. 11 is nebulous at best, and when there are serious economic concerns at home.
In his time, such positions by King were called "demagogic slander" by Time magazine. The Washington Post editorialized that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people." The FBI dubbed him the "most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country."
In light of current events, King would remind us that people everywhere - regardless of religion, nationality, or creed - are united in "a single garment of destiny" and that no nation should act unilaterally. He would assert (and, in turn, garner great criticism) that it is only through treating our enemies as children of God that we will ever create true global security.
And, even in the face of nuclear war, he would hold steadfast to his belief in the power of nonviolence.
More than ever this year, we ought to rediscover the life of Martin Luther King Jr. in its entirety - both the easy and the challenging parts. We may find that, once again, the man has a great deal to teach us.
• Patrick W. Gavin is a writer in the office of communications at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington.