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Which King will emerge in new memorial?


When and if enough money is raised, a design approved and enough earth bulldozed away, a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., will be dedicated in a few years at the Tidal Basin in Washington. In early December, the National Capital Planning Commission approved a four-acre site that rests in a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.

As with these, and including one nearby honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt, the King memorial will carry chiseled excerpts from speeches and writings. But which words will be chosen? Which King will visitors to the memorial connect with?

Since King’s death in 1968, he has been monopolized by those who see him as a civil rights leader. And only a civil rights leader. Every January around the time of the King holiday, much of the media replay still again the “I Have A Dream” oration -- the stump speech.

Politicians of all or no stripes portray King as a champion of integration who organized blacks to win voting rights. For those whose vocal chords can always use another workout, there is remembering Brother Martin with “We Shall Overcome.”

Undeniably, King, as Sen. Edward Kennedy said in a 1983 floor debate on whether to create a national holiday for the slain leader, “worked tirelessly to remove the stain of discrimination from our nation.” But King the integrationist is the tame, safe and sanitized King. Except for fringe white supremacists and confederate flag wavers, who overtly favors racism?

Pushed aside -- dumped, really -- is the troublesome and troublemaking King whose commitment to nonviolence and pacifism meant that he was much, much more than a civil rights leader. He was a fiercely uncompromising critic of American militarism who said in New York on April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before his assassination -- that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today (is) my own government.”

Has that changed? The evidence says no. The same ethic of violence and the same drives to world domination that dispatched U.S. soldiers to kill people in Vietnam as a way to solve a political dispute is the one that sent U.S. soldiers in the 1980s and ’90s to kill people in Grenada, Libya, Panama, Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq. Each is a nation of poor people, and nearly all are populated by people of color. What would King be saying today about a U.S. foreign policy habitually directed at killing people of dark skin?

Will King’s statement on the violence-purveying U.S. government be carved in stone at the Tidal Basin?

And will the designers be instructed to carve into stone King’s 1967 assessment of the nation’s spending: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”

According to the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, nearly 50 percent of the federal discretionary budget is for military programs. Congress lavishes on the Pentagon an average of $700 million a day, a sum three times more than the Peace Corps gets in a year and twice the annual Americorps budget. Seven hundred million dollars a day comes to $500,000 a minute or about $8,000 a second. A government’s values are revealed by where its money goes.

If King’s views on money make it into marble, perhaps it can be footnoted with his comment in 1968 when the House and Senate were doing what they are doing today, penny-pinching on social programs and splurging on the Pentagon’s: “The Congress is sick.”

An entire generation of American students has gone through schools whose texts ignore King’s memorable antiwar thinking. In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen of the University of Vermont examined the 12 most commonly used high school level U.S. history textbooks. He reports that “King, the first major leader to come out against the (Vietnam) war, opposed it in his trademark cadences: ‘We have destroyed (Vietnam’s) two most treasured institutions -- the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. … We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.’ No textbook quotes King.”

All of them did, for sure, carry excerpts from the “I Have a Dream” speech.

After three decades of being sentimentalized into a historical relic mummified by the formaldehyde of nostalgia, King has been marginalized in ways that were never possible while he lived. For one thing, he was around to defend himself. Near the end of his life, he summed up his mission: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to capture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism.”

What hostile world? In the mid-1980s, a major part of it was the corporate media whose reporters and editorial writers dismissed King as being far out of his depth with his anti-military views. The New York Times and The Washington Post instructed King to stick to racial issues, and leave weighty foreign policy matters to sophisticated people who know something -- like pro-Vietnam war editorial writers at the Times and Post.

To King critics Carl Rowan and J. Edgar Hoover, antiwar equaled anti-American. Rowan, a courtier to the war making Lyndon Johnson, accused King of being duped by people “more interested in embarrassing” the United States than anything else, while Hoover smeared King as “an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.”

Others piled on. These included some blacks who posed questions on why King was fragmenting himself by mixing peace and civil rights: Doesn’t he understand that racism is his issue, they asked, and nothing else?

King was ready for that one: “When I hear such questions, I have been greatly saddened, for they mean that the inquirers have never really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, that question suggests that they do not know the world in which they live.”

Then and now, it is a world dominated by governments and economic powers whose reliance on violence to solve conflicts has made the 20th century history’s bloodiest. Any memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. that doesn’t forcefully remind us of his militant opposition to war making ought to be in Disneyland. It will get plenty of laughs.

Colman McCarthy writes from Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000