Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Opposition To The War In Vietnam

After the U.S. Civil War, when the slaves were freed, the southern whites continued to deny that black people, slave or free, were citizens of the U.S. They reasoned that just because a person was not a "slave" did not necessarily mean they were a "citizen."

In response to the continued oppression of black Americans, Congress passed a series of laws and amendments to the Constitution to explicitly state that the slaves were citizens, and entitled to equal rights and the equal protection of all the laws of our nation.

Despite these Constitutional rights and guarantees, the black citizens of this country, particularly those in the south, continued to be denied all basic human rights of citizens. One of the tactics developed in the south was segregation "de jure" (which means as a matter of law). Segregation "de facto" (in fact, without legal compulsion) was the norm in the northern parts of our country.

So, for example, in the south the black children were legally compelled to attend a black-only school, and legally forbidden from attending the white-only schools in the same towns. In the north, there was no law that prevented black students from attending a majority white school, but in an effort to maintain segregation, people recorded declarations in deeds against property making it illegal to sell a home in certain neighborhoods to a black person, then passed laws saying that only the residents of certain neighborhoods could attend a certain school.

In the south, segregation existed at all public levels. When the civil rights movement of the 1950s began, its preliminary goal was to end segregation de jure, to eliminate the laws which forbade black people from sitting in the front of the public bus, from attending certain schools, from eating in certain parts of a restaurant. They also attacked the laws which had been developed in the south to prevent black people from being able to vote.

The Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations immediately resorted to violence and terrorism in an effort to prevent the black people from joining the civil rights organizers. Black churches were bombed. Black people were drug from their homes in the middle of the night and beaten, sometimes murdered. Crosses were burned in the yards of black people. There are famous photos of southern police and sheriffs siding with the racists and against the civil rights workers, turning police dogs loose to attack the black people, using fire hoses to knock down old ladies walking peacefully on the sidewalks. And the nightly news across the nation showed white southerners lining sidewalks and spitting on little black children who were trying to make their way to school.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a heavy burden when he assumed a leadership role in the black civil rights movement in this country. But he was helped by the fact that his position was right and just, and much of the nation soon came to see that these things must change.

Towards the end of his too-short life, Martin Luther King, Jr. expanded his areas of concern to include the relationship of the U.S. with other countries in the world. An international consciousness had begun to develop among some black civil rights leaders who saw that their circumstances shared much in common with other oppressed people in the world.

See Chris Hedges' 1/17/10 article at Truthdig, "Turning King's Dream Into A Nightmare," excerpt below:

“King began to see that Malcolm [X] was right in what he was saying about white people,” [quoting Professor James Cone, of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, author of the book Martin & Malcolm & America]. “Malcolm saw that white people did not have a conscience that could be appealed to to bring justice for African-Americans. King realized that near the end of his life. He began to call most whites ‘unconscious racists.’ ”

"The crude racist rhetoric of the past is now considered impolite. We pretend there is equality and equal opportunity while ignoring the institutional and economic racism that infects our inner cities and fills our prisons, where a staggering one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are incarcerated. There are more African-American men behind bars than in college. 'The cell block has replaced the auction block,' the poet Yusef Komunyakaa writes."

"The fact that prison and urban ghettos are populated primarily with people of color is not an accident. It is a calculated decision by those who wield economic and political control. For the bottom third of African-Americans, many of whom live in these segregated enclaves of misery and deprivation, little has changed over the past few decades; indeed, life has often gotten worse."

"In the last months of his life, King began to appropriate Malcolm’s [Malcolm X's] language, reminding listeners that the ghetto was a 'system of internal colonialism.' 'The purpose of the slum,' King said in a speech at the Chicago Freedom Festival, 'is to confine those who have no power and perpetuate their powerlessness. … The slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn.' The chief problem is economic, King concluded, and the solution is to restructure the whole society."

"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were, as King and Malcolm knew, meaningless slogans if there was no possibility of a decent education, a safe neighborhood, a job or a living wage. King and Malcolm were also acutely aware that the permanent war economy was directly linked to the perpetuation of racism and poverty at home and often abroad."

"In a speech titled 'Beyond Vietnam' [video below] he gave at Riverside Church a year before his assassination, King called America the 'greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,' a quote that won’t make it into many Martin Luther King Day celebrations. King’s strident denunciation of the Vietnam War and economic injustice at the end of his life saw many white liberals, members of his own staff, as well as allies within the political power structure, turn against him. King and Malcolm, in the final days of their lives, were lonely men."

Many of the young men from this country who were drafted and sent to war, and killed, were black. By denying black people opportunity, the country created a ready-made class of unemployed youth who had little choice but to join the military and be sent off to fight wars on foreign soils. Many of the black veterans who returned from Vietnam began talking to their neighbors, and telling them that they had no fight with the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese had never lynched their grandfathers, never called them the N Word, never spit on their children just for trying to go to school.

Martin Luther King, Jr. began to speak out against the war in Vietnam very shortly before he was murdered. His consciousness of the injustice towards black people in this country inevitably led him to oppose injustice towards people in other nations. In particular, to oppose the slaughter of the people of Vietnam, a very poor country which had never threatened or attacked the U.S., but a country in which the U.S. would eventually murder two million of their residents. He began to see that true justice, equality and peace could only come about if all the oppressed people of the world stood together to fight against the oppressors, the rich and the war-mongers of the world.

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