On this 80th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr., as I look at the state of human rights in the
world I ask myself, “What would Dr. King do?”
Look at the situation in the Mideast, particularly
the current bloodshed in Gaza. These attacks, a violation of international
humanitarian law, can be described most charitably as a disproportionate
use of force by the Israeli Defense Forces. Some have referred to
this indiscriminate bombing of Gaza as a case of collective punishment,
with the dehumanizing legacy of the occupation as the obvious backdrop.
Levy of Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily newspaper noted, Israel’s military commander is now inclined
“to kill as many as possible,” adding that “The unbridled aggression
and brutality are justified as ‘exercising caution’: the frightening
balance of blood - about 100 Palestinian dead for every Israeli
killed, isn’t raising any questions, as if we’ve decided that their
blood is worth one hundred times less than ours, in acknowledgement
of our inherent racism.”
Such are the consequences when the drums of war drown
out the voices of peace.
Let me take you to Philadelphia: Rabbi Linda Holtzman
represents the best of Dr. King’s philosophy of standing up against
injustice and for the rights of all people, particularly when it
is unpopular to do so. Recently, she
participated in a protest in front of the Israeli consulate. Rabbi Linda,
as we affectionately call her, has been a spiritual advisor to my
family. She was there for us when my son Ezra Malik was buried,
when we sent him off, wrapped in a traditional shroud, to join his
And she went to the protest, guided by her convictions,
because the attacks in Gaza sickened her, and she could not tolerate
what was going on there. To be sure, such a stance does not make
Rabbi Linda very popular in some circles. Yet, it is because she
exemplifies the teachings of Dr. King that she is one of my heroes.
Drum Major Instinct
for Dr. King’s antiwar stance, we need not speculate, because he
was very clear on the matter. As a key spokesperson for the human condition, King had no choice. On February
4, 1968, only two months before his assassination, Martin Luther
King gave a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church titled, “The Drum
Major Instinct,” which dealt with the propensity of human beings
to want to be superior to others. The concept is important because
it linked King’s condemnation of racism, economic exploitation and
militarism, the “triple evils that are interrelated.” King, after
all, well understood the universality and the interconnected nature
of these three forms of oppression, that in order to eliminate one
of them, it was necessary to eliminate them all. “And think of what
has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the
drum major instinct,” King said. “It has led to the most tragic
prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man.”
King, the world was being led down a suicidal path due to the drum
major instinct, and the contest between nations for world supremacy:
“But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting
there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct.
‘I must be first.’ ‘I must be supreme.’ ‘Our nation must rule the
world.’ And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is
the supreme culprit. And
I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this
country too much to see the drift that it has taken.
God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in
the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless,
unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war.
We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world,
and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because
of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”
For the civil rights leader who stood true to the
gospel of social justice, and the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was
thrust onto the international stage as a prominent human rights
figure, his opposition to war was a natural progression from his
platform on racial segregation. He remembered Dante’s admonition
that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a
moment of moral crisis seek to maintain their neutrality.”
Letter From Birmingham Jail
today, when many people, particularly religious leaders, remain
silent in the midst of war, oppression, killing and other injustices,
I am also reminded of Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.
King had special criticism reserved for the Southern White moderates
who may have disapproved of segregation and the attendant racist
policies and brutal treatment of Negroes, yet did or said nothing
out of fear of retaliation or social ostracism.
He was particularly disappointed with the White clergy, who disapproved of his desegregation
efforts as “unwise and untimely,” and whose otherworldly approach
to religion precluded them from taking any action regarding social
problems. Under their conservative brand of Christianity, order
was (and still is) given preference over justice and freedom. “In
the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro,” King
said, “I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely
mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” Sadly,
conservative Christianity made many White religious leaders reluctant
to acknowledge the equality of humankind under society and the law,
just as all people were supposedly equal before God in the spiritual
Civil Disobedience and Unjust Laws
Luther King led a movement which led to the writing of new laws
such as the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s. These laws
were written in the blood of those demonstrators who risked, and
at times gave, their lives for social justice. Ironically, yet appropriately,
Dr. King’s achievements came not merely by challenging unjust and
immoral segregation laws, but through disobeying such laws.
attitudes toward immoral laws were rooted in his religious beliefs,
and out of a concern for the effects of the oppressive laws on the
oppressed. In King’s eyes, segregation was unacceptable because
it denied blacks their self-respect. The segregation laws assigned
a false badge of inferiority to African Americans and a false badge
of superiority to whites. Laws which degrade human personality,
in King’s view, are unjust.
man who broke unjust laws was responsible for the creation of new
laws. To that end, Dr. King demonstrated the true potency of nonviolent
resistance. “We made our government write new laws to alter some
of the cruelest injustices that affected us,” he said. “We made
an indifferent and unconcerned nation rise from lethargy and subpoenaed
its conscience to appear before the judgment seat of morality on
the whole question of civil rights.”
China is one country in desperate need of a Kingian-style
movement of civil disobedience. On the one hand, that nation’s rate
of economic growth has been stunning by any measure. Until the global
economic crisis, this world economic power was bankrolling America
by holding $1 trillion in U.S. debt.
On the other hand, the 2008 Beijing Olympics proved
that police states put on the best shows. While they do everything
to try to prove to you how great and perfect they are, for all of
their ostentatious displays, never can they hide the truth.
The world gave China - this Communist totalitarian
state turned hypercapitalist totalitarian state – a big huge pass
by allowing it to conduct business as usual throughout the Olympics.
And in the process, the Chinese government was able to show its
people that the world respected it, and that it could do what it
wanted to them with impunity.
during the Olympics coverage, one could learn where to find the
best Peking Duck in Beijing, or hear about the hottest fashions
in China, or admire that nation’s glitzy, ultramodern, high-tech
capital city. The biggest scandals reported were the fake, computer
enhanced fireworks display during the opening ceremonies, the allegedly
underaged gymnasts, and the lipsynching little girl who replaced
a singer judged not cute enough for display at the Olympics.
But the world heard nothing about China’s arbitrary
laws and unjust punishments. China promised to allow permits to
protesters during the Olympics, yet subsequently
sentenced two elderly Chinese women to “re-education through labour” for applying for such a permit.
We heard nothing of China’s economic relationship
with Sudan’s genocidal regime. No
word about China’s oppression of minority groups, suppression of
religious freedom, or its policy of cultural genocide in Tibet.
No word about forced labor and torture, a socio-economic apartheid
system for rural areas, the assaults on freedom of speech, the arrests
of journalists, and the imprisonment of critics of the government.
Journalist and documentary filmmaker Kevin McKiernan
is in the post-production stages of a film called Bringing
King To China. The documentary focuses on a groundbreaking play
in China about Dr. King, and a young
American woman’s quest to introduce Chinese audiences to Dr. King’s message
of universal rights, peace and nonviolent struggle. Perhaps a cross-cultural
dialogue about the man’s philosophy could provide the spark that
will transform Beijing the way it transformed Birmingham. Time will
But this is certain: the world needs Dr. King more
than ever, and although he is no longer with us physically, he has
provided us with a blueprint for international peace that will forever
endure…if we allow it.
Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is a lawyer and journalist
based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These
Times and Philadelphia
Independent Media Center. He contributed to the book,
States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons
(St. Martin’s Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International
UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference
as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and
served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His blog is davidalove.com.
here to contact Mr. Love.