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Surviving MLK Day

Photo credit: Library of Congress

For me, the only way to enjoy Martin Luther King Day is to ruthlessly avoid the parades, the sing-alongs, the school assemblies, the TV commercials, and the White House statements—especially the White House statements.

"By simply living a life of kindness and compassion, you can make America a better place and fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King," said President Bush this morning, thus consigning King to the one place he does not belong: the sainthood of ineffectual wimps.

The best antidote to the lethal banalities of Martin Luther King Day is to actually listen to King’s speeches. Our local Pacifica station, WPFW, always celebrates the holiday with thrilling broadcasts of King’s speeches.

One of my favorites is King’s April 4, 1967 speech "Beyond Vietnam" delivered a year to the date before his assassination. In the face of fierce criticism from allies and enemies alike, King made a political and religious case against a colonialist war. His linkage of war and economic power, makes obvious a fact that some of the people embracing King’s memory today would prefer to ignore. King, who would have been 79 last week, would likely have opposed the current occupation of Iraq with the same passion he opposed the war in Vietnam.

I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energy in the rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to the see the war as an enemy of the poor and attack is as such.

Naturally, the editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times denounced King’s argument. What did a mere preacher know compared to the foreign policy savants of Georgetown, cried these scribes. Who can doubt that if King were alive today an army of bloggers and TV talk show hosts would just as reflexively question his credentials and patriotism?

But King’s ideas about America’s role in the world endure in public opinion because they are firmly grounded in the tradition of Jefferson, Paine, Thoreau, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Niebuhr. That’s why we have a holiday, even if the president doesn’t know it.

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