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The Black Commentator - Cover Story: African-American Peacemakers - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, and the Struggle Against Racism, Inequality and War

[This speech was delivered at the University of Illinois at Chicago, sponsored by the Great Cities Institute on April 4, 2008]

4 April 2008 marks the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We still tend to focus our image of Martin delivering his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, at the 1963 March on Washington, D.C. However, civil rights was not the only issue that divided America in the 1960s. By 1966, U.S. military forces in South Vietnam amounted to 184,000; by January 1969, 536,000 U.S. troops were stationed in that country. For black Americans, the war had a direct impact upon every community. African Americans comprised about one out of every seven U.S. soldiers stationed in Vietnam, and because African Americans tended to be placed in “combat units” more often than middle-class whites. They also bore unfairly higher risks of being killed and wounded. From January through November 1966, over one-fifth of all army casualties were black.

By 1965, however, a small number of black progressives had begun to speak in opposition to the war. Julian Bond, elected to the Georgia State House of Representatives, defended the right of “the Vietnamese peasants who … have expressed a real desire to govern themselves.” The “gunboat diplomacy of the past” had little place in contemporary world affairs. Perhaps the most articulate opponent of the US war effort holding public office was US Representative Ronald V. Dellums. From the floor of Congress, Dellums declared:

“I consider our involvement in Indochina illegal, immoral and insane. We are in a war which is the greatest human and economic drain on American resources in modern times – a war disproportionately waged on the backs of blacks and browns and reds and yellows and poor and working class whites, a war resulting in an untold number of deaths of the Vietnamese people, a war that is justified only by the notion that we as a  nation, must save face … Millions of people in the country are no longer willing to engage in such folly and be cannon fodder, and go across the water to spill their blood on foreign soil in a cause many of them do not even understand.”

Black activists and intellectuals, who were part of the Black Power movement, had serious reservations about participating in anti-war organizations dominated by white liberals and leftists. But almost all of them opposed the Vietnam War; some even drew an analogy between the suffering of the Vietnamese as a “colonial people”, and the “domestic colonialism” experienced by African Americans.

During the bitter national debate on Vietnam, nearly all major all public leaders within black America were forced to choose sides. As a dedicated pacifist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could not look upon the conflict benignly without taking some kind of public stand against the war. At the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) executive board meeting held in Baltimore on 1-2 April 1965, Dr. King expressed the need to criticize the Johnson Administration’s policies in Southeast Asia. His old colleagues, fearful that Dr. King’s support for the anti-war movement would hurt the SCLC financially and politically, voted to allow him to do so only as a private person, without organizational endorsement. Bayard Rustin, the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, still maintained close ties with King, and tried to pressure the SCLC leader into a position of neutrality on Vietnam. On 10 September 1965, Rustin, Dr. King, and SCLC aides Andrew Young and Bernard Lee met with the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg. Goldberg managed to convince Dr. King, for the moment, that the Johnson Administration had every intention of bringing the conflict to a peaceful resolution. For several months, Dr. King watched anxiously as the number of US troops stationed in Vietnam increased. Finally in January 1966, Dr. King published his criticisms about the Vietnam War.

“Some of my friends of both races, and others who do not consider themselves my friends, have expressed disapproval because I have been voicing concern over the war in Vietnam,” Dr. King explained. But as a Christian, Dr. King believed that he had no choice except to “declare that war is wrong.” Black leaders could not become blind to the rest of the world’s issues, while engaged solely in problems of domestic race relations. Martin argued, “The Negro must not allow himself to become a victim of the self-serving philosophy of those who manufacture war that the survival of the world is the white man’s business alone.” The negative response to Dr. King’s anti-war statement was swift. SCLC leaders in Chattanooga, Tennessee, severed relations with the national organization in protest. National Urban League director Whitney Young replied that blacks were not interested in the Vietnam issue. Martin vigorously lobbied among his allies in the SCLC to back his position on Vietnam, and in the spring of 1966 the organization’s executive board came out officially against the war.

Increasingly, as Dr. King’s attention was drawn to the Vietnam war, he also began to consider the necessity for black Americans to devise a more radical strategy for domestic reforms. Dr. King was beginning to articulate a radical democratic vision for American society: the nationalization of basic industries; massive federal expenditures to revive central cities and to provide jobs for ghetto residents; programs to address rural poverty; a job or guaranteed income for every adult American.

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination, Martin delivered his eloquent, yet controversial address, “Beyond Vietnam,” at New York City’s Riverside Church. In his sermon, Dr. King advanced his strongest denunciation yet of the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam.

“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight,” Dr. King began, “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Martin noted that the presence of hundreds of thousands of US troops in southeast Asia had only led to the deaths of thousands of innocent victims, and had cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” Dr. King observed. It was impossible for the administration of then-President Lyndon Johnson to carry out his “Great Society” social programs, or his “War On Poverty,” when billions of dollars were being reallocated to destroy Vietnamese villages, towns and homes. King announced that “it would be very inconsistent for me to teach and preach nonviolence in this situation and applaud violence when thousands and thousands of people, both adults and children, are being maimed and many killed in this war.”

Despite these criticisms, eleven days later, in New York City’s Central Park, Dr. King led a rally of 125,000 in protest against the Vietnam War. As New York Times journalist Bob Herbert observed, Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address “unleashed a hurricane of criticism.” The NAACP and other moderate civil rights leaders, such as Bayard Rustin, sharply criticized King for “stepping out of his perceived area of expertise, civil rights, to raise his voice against the evil of the war.” The New York Times joined these critics, proclaiming in an editorial headline, “Dr. King’s Error.”

Four decades later, the US was once again confronted with a controversial, unwinnable ground war in Asia, and a domestic debate over our military involvement there. In the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks after 9/11 back in 2001, African Americans, like other Americans, were morally and politically outraged by Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks. Yet they were deeply troubled by the immediate groundswell of patriotic fervor, national chauvinism and numerous acts of violence and harassment targeting individual Muslims and Arab Americans. They recognized that behind this mass upsurgence of American patriotism was xenophobia, ethnic and religious intolerance that could potentially reinforce traditional white racism against all people of color, particularly themselves. They questioned the Bush administration’s “Patriot Act of 2001” and other legal measures that severely restricted Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights. For these reasons, the majority of  black leaders sought to uphold Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tradition of civil rights and civic liberties, and boldly challenged the US rationale for its military incursions in both Afghanistan, and later Iraq.

The pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church, the Reverend James A. Forbes, Jr., proposed that African Americans embrace a critical, “prophetic patriotism… You will hold America to the values of freedom, justice, compassion, equality, respect for all, patience and care for the needy, a world where everyone counts.” Norman Hill, an African-American labor leader, observed in the New Pittsburgh Courier: “Threatening or attacking people because of their ethnic or religious background helps the terrorists by dividing the country. African Americans should remember this: after 300 years of oppression and discrimination, we are making progress in taking our full place in American society, thanks to the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement… The last thing we want to see is a revival of hatred and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion or nationality.” Urban League President Hugh Price argued that black Americans must “vigorously support the federal government’s efforts to root out the terrorists wherever they hide around the globe . . .” However, Price also insisted that “black America’s mission, as it has always been, is to fight against the forces of hatred and injustice, to fight for the right of all human beings to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

As the U.S. Justice Department began to arrest and hold without trial hundreds of Muslims and Arab Americans, Islamic groups urgently appealed to the Nation of Islam, NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus for assistance. Approximately 40 percent of the U.S.’s Islamic population is African American, and hundreds of native-born blacks, because of their religious affiliations, also found themselves under surveillance or were arrested, despite having no links to terrorist groups. The Reverend Jesse Jackson openly condemned the police practice of ethnic/religious “profiling,” by declaring that the U.S. needed to focus its resources toward the “building of understanding and building a just peace,” instead of resorting to warfare to “root out terrorism.”

In March, 2003, as the U.S. military invaded Iraq, a Pew Research Center opinion poll found that only 44 percent of African Americans favored the war. By contrast, white Americans endorsed the invasion by 73 percent, with Latinos favoring military conflict by 66 percent. African-American clergy, led by Brooklyn activist, the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, organized daily “vigils for peace” near the United Nations. The black ministers created a “Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Now Movement,” which actively participated in the growing anti-war mobilization throughout the U.S. Black arts poet/publisher Haki Madhubti explained to the press why the majority of African Americans opposed the Iraq War, stating, “We’ve lived under terror since our forced migration to this country. We’ve been able to build a life around terror.”

By early April 2003 the U.S. had successfully toppled the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein, and over one hundred thousand U.S. troops occupied the country. No “weapons of mass destruction,” the justification for the U.S. invasion, were found. The military invasion of an Islamic country strengthened the network of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, by creating a vivid example of imperialist aggression aimed against the entire Islamic world. In a 4 April 2003 Gallup opinion poll, 78 percent of white Americans supported the military invasion; African-American support for the war had plummeted to only 29 percent.

In this presidential campaign year, the candidate speaking most decisively within the antiwar tradition of Dr. King’s Riverside Church peace address is Illinois Senator Barack Obama. In a major address on 20 March 2008 at the University of Charleston, Obama urged the electorate to consider the destructive impact that Bush’s five-year-long war in Iraq has had on the economy. Obama observed: “The more than $10 billion we’re spending each month in Iraq is money we could be investing here at home. Just think about what battles we could be fighting instead of fighting this misguided war.” Obama showed the ability to break down the $10 billion Iraq War bill to illustrate how every U.S. family was bearing part of the financial burden. “When Iraq is costing each household about $100 a month, you’re paying a price for this war,” Obama declared. “No matter what the costs, no matter what the consequences, John McCain seems determined to carry out a third [Bush] term. That’s an outcome America can’t afford.”

Every day, the nation is currently slipping further into a serious economic crisis, while President Bush mindlessly tap dances outside the White House. Between September, 2007 and January, 2008, the median price for a U.S. home fell 6 percent compared to one year earlier. The private sector economy lost 26,000 jobs in January, 2008, and another 101,000 jobs in February.

Obama’s immediate challenge, therefore, is to link the current economic and mortgage crisis being experienced by millions of Americans, with the political economy of the Iraq War. The place for Obama to start would be to remind voters of the distance between Bush’s promises about the projected economic costs of the conflict vs. the reality. The federal government is incapable of addressing domestic economic problems, he might argue, because the Iraq War cost is so expensive.

Five years ago, the Bush administration promised Americans that the cost for invading and occupying Iraq militarily would be approximately $50 to $60 billion. By the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, this March, the Pentagon admitted that military expenditures now exceed $600 billion. The Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan center, sets the real cost somewhere between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, my faculty colleague at Columbia University, estimates that the long term cost for Bush’s war in Iraq could exceed $4 trillion. The best way to comprehend this enormous waste of money and human lives that the United States government has carried out is to measure the unmet needs and obligations we are failing to address. Several days ago, for example, Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton estimated the cost of the Iraq War at well over $1 trillion: “That is enough to provide health care to all 47 million uninsured Americans and quality pre-kindergarten for every American child, solve the housing crisis once and for all, make college affordable for every American student and provide tax relief to tens of millions of middle-class families.”

Even some honest Republicans who supported the Iraq War now recognize how terribly wrong their estimates were for how much the conflict would cost. Take the case of economist Lawrence B. Lindsey, Bush’s first chief economic adviser. Lindsey was fired from his post years ago because he estimated that the war could cost $100 billion to $200 billion. Lindsay’s preliminary figures were right, but he underestimated how long U.S. troops would be stationed and fighting in Iraq. Now, Republican Presidential candidate John McCain promises us that American troops could be stationed and fighting in Iraq for one hundred years.

The Iraq War fosters a culture of intolerance and violence that has infected domestic politics. Militarism and imperialism abroad have produced at home a “National Security State,” a government that now routinely suppresses civil liberties and civil rights. As poverty and class inequality grow exponentially, prisons become the last bastion for preserving the social hierarchy of class, race and gender privilege and unfairness.

As of 2008, one out of every one hundred American adults is living behind bars. According to a December 2007 study of the American Civil Liberties Union, “Race and Ethnicity in America,” in the past thirty years there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of Americans behind bars, amounting to 2.2 million people, which represent 25 percent of the world’s prison population. This prison population is disproportionately black and brown. As of 2006, the U.S. penal population was 46 percent white, 41 percent African American, and 19 percent Latino. In practical terms, by 2001, about one out of every six African-American males had experienced jail or imprisonment. Based on current trends, over one out of three black men will experience imprisonment during their lives.

There is overwhelming evidence that the overrepresentation of blacks in prisons is largely due to discrimination in every phase of the criminal justice system. According to the 2007 ACLU study, for example, African Americans comprised 11 percent of Texas’s population, but 40 percent of the state’s prisoners. Blacks in Texas are incarcerated at roughly five times the rate of whites. Despite the fact that blacks statistically represent fewer than 10 percent of drug abusers, in Texas 50 percent of all prisoners incarcerated in state prisons and two-thirds of all those in jails for “drug delivery offenses” are African Americans.

A similar pattern is found within the juvenile justice system. African-American youth represent 15 percent of all American juveniles. However, they represent 26 percent of all juveniles who are arrested by the police nationwide. They are 58 percent of all youth who are sentenced to serve time in state prisons. In California, Latino youth are two times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison; for African-American youth in California, it is six times the incarceration rate.

What are the practical political consequences of the mass incarceration of black Americans? In New York State, for example, the prison populations play a significant role in how some state legislative districts are drawn up. In New York’s 45th senatorial district, located in the extreme northern corner of upstate New York, there are thirteen state prisons, with 1,000 prisoners, all of whom are counted as residents. Prisoners in New York are disenfranchised – they cannot vote – yet their numbers help to create a Republican state senatorial district. These “prison districts” now exist all over the United States.

The most obscene dimension of the national compulsion to incarcerate has been the deliberate Criminalization of young black people, with the construction of a “school-to-prison pipeline.” Under the cover of  “zero tolerance” for all forms of “disobedience,” too many school administrators are aggressively and unfairly removing black youth from schools. Statistically, African-American youths are two to three times more likely than whites to be suspended, and far more likely to be corporally punished or expelled. According to the ACLU’s 2007 study, “nationally, African American students comprise 17 percent of the student population, but account for 36 percent of school suspensions and 31 percent of expulsions. In New Jersey, for example, black students are nearly 60 times more likely to be expelled than their white counterparts. In Iowa, blacks make up just 5 percent of the statewide public school enrollment, but account for 22 percent of suspensions.” Too many black children are taught at an early age that their only future resides in a prison or jail. Those who escape prison might find themselves fighting or even dying in an unwinnable war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, as our military adventures abroad continue, states are reducing their investments in education, while expanding expenditures in their correctional facilities. Between 1987 and 2007, states spent an average of a 21 percent increase on higher education, but expanded their corrections budgets by an average of 127 percent. Today, for the first time in recent history, there are now five states that spend more state money on prisons than on public colleges – Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon, and Vermont. The ugly tradeoff not to educate but to incarcerate continues. The ever-expanding prison industrial complex lies at the center of America’s National Security State. Now is the time to return America’s government to democratic processes and the rule of law. Now is the time to break with the culture of violence – militarism abroad and mass incarceration at home. Now is the time to “give peace a chance.”

Obama’s biggest challenge, therefore, must be to explain to the American people that both imperialist wars abroad, the construction of a “National Security State” mass incarcerations and prisons, and periodic economic crises at home, all represent a profound structural failure within America’s legal, economic and political systems. This is the political economy of institutional violence. This was, of course, the realization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just before his assassination. “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society,” Dr. King declared in 1966, “a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently.” Let us summon the courage of Dr. King, by opposing this immoral war. Let us join the great tradition of African-American peacemakers by rejecting and dismantling our prison industrial complex and mass incarceration. Let us imagine a world without racism and a nation dedicated to peace and freedom. Editorial Board member, Manning Marable, PhD is one of America’s most influential and widely read scholars. Since 1993, Dr. Marable has been Professor of Public Affairs, Political Science, History and African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York City. For ten years, Dr. Marable was founding director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, from 1993 to 2003. Dr. Marable is an author or editor of over 20 books, including Living Black History: How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America's Racial Future (2006); The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero's Life And Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, And Speeches (2005); Freedom: A Photographic History of the African American Struggle (2002); Black Leadership: Four Great American Leaders and the Struggle for Civil Rights (1998); Beyond Black and White: Transforming African-American Politics (1995); and How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society (South End Press Classics Series) (1983). His current project is a major biography of Malcolm X, entitled Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, to be published by Viking Press in 2009. Click here to contact Dr. Marable or visit his Website

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April 10, 2008
Issue 272

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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