King's words still ring true

The civil rights leader's 1967 ``Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam''

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 11:33 p.m.

"Every man knows enough Bible to fit his own pistol,'' my late father used to say. Or, I might amend, enough King.

Dad's observation dates to the time when debaters would turn to the Scriptures for support of their point of view - whatever it happened to be - on the issues of the day.

My amendment acknowledges that I may be doing something similar when I use the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous 1967 ``Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam'' as a commentary on America's presence in Iraq.

King, remember, was known until that 1967 sermon at New York's Riverside Church primarily as a civil rights leader. His Nobel Peace Prize, awarded three years earlier, was largely in recognition of his nonviolent advocacy on behalf of black and poor Americans.

And he was roundly criticized by those, black and white, conservative and liberal, who thought he was overstepping his boundaries and jeopardizing the cause of civil rights.

King himself thought, as many of us do now, that it was the war that put the interests of the poor in jeopardy. Listen:

A few years ago there was a shining moment. ... It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor - both black and white - through the Poverty Program. Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched the 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 Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.

Even the harshest critics of the war in Iraq acknowledge that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a brute. But they also believe that our government made military action against him seem unavoidable when it might have been avoided.

King saw the same thing - can it really be? - 37 years ago when, as he put it, ``America has spoken of peace and built up its forces ... speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than 8,000 miles from its shores.''

King - even with a sympathetic audience - found it necessary to distinguish between opposition to the war and opposition to our troops:

I should make it clear that while I have tried here to give a voice to the voiceless of Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for our troops must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.

Some critics of America's behavior in Iraq have expressed the fear that we may, however inadvertently, be fomenting a latter-day holy war. King quoted a letter from a Vietnamese Buddhist who complained that the Americans were ``forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. ... It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.''

And finally, King's sermon has a word for those who think it silly, weak and maybe even unpatriotic to wonder why so many people in certain parts of the world hate us so.

How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence ... while we pour new weapons of death into their land? ... Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence - when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know of his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weakness of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

If I am more hopeful now than King was then, there's good reason. He spoke at a time when our government was still building up its forces - and its deceitful rationale - for military action in Vietnam.

We haven't yet been told the whole truth, but at least it appears that the present administration is looking for a way out. Maybe we've learned something after all.

William Raspberry writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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