Reflections on Martin Luther King Day as Barack Obama Becomes President

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Every year I have written a special essay on Martin Luther King Day. I usually pick a lesser known Martin Luther King speech to reflect on. At the MLK Dinner last Thursday, I heard an excerpt from the 1967 speech, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.”

Dr. King has become so lionized in this country, that people often seem to forget that he was not non-threatening figure that he has now become. He was in his own day radical despite the fact that those on the more radical side felt he was too passive, those on the less confrontational side felt he was too radical. Indeed, when Dr. King was killed in 1968, it was the heart of 1968 election where Richard Nixon was working hard to take away the south from the Democrats. Nixon was criticized heavily by his advisers and those on the right for the mere idea of going to Dr. King’s funeral. If you wonder how much the world has changed in 40 years, ponder that for awhile. One of those who criticized him hardest was a young speech writer and adviser Patrick J. Buchanan.

The point illustrates where much of America was even in 1968.

The year before his death, on April 4, 1967, Dr. King broke his silence on Vietnam.

A few weeks later he delivered the speech from which I now excerpt. Frankly in many ways it could have been written today, as speech in opposition to the war in Iraq rather than the war in Vietnam:

“Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster. America has strayed to the far country of racism and militarism. The home that all too many Americans left was solidly structured idealistically; its pillars were solidly grounded in the insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage. All men are made in the image of God. All men are bothers. All men are created equal. Every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. Every man has rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the State–they are God-given. Out of one blood, God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. What a marvelous foundation for any home! What a glorious and healthy place to inhabit. But America’s strayed away, and this unnatural excursion has brought only confusion and bewilderment. It has left hearts aching with guilt and minds distorted with irrationality.

It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home, America.”

The notion that opposition means hate and that patriotism means unconditional support is a notion that has been rooted in the American psyche for a long time. I felt this issue most recently last Tuesday when my loyalty to Israel was challenged because I dared to question the Israeli Government. While I was not directly called a self-hater at the time, I may as well have been for I shared the views of someone who was.

What Dr. King understood was that the issue of racial equality was in fact deeply rooted in the issue of Vietnam. As he understood it went beyond simply race to class. For the very people who were dying in the jungles of Vietnam were those poor brothers and sisters who could not afford a college education to get a deferment.

Moreover, the cause of peace was inextricably linked to the cause of non-violent resistance. And here I criticize my more secular brothers and sisters who failed to recognize the role that faith played in the civil rights and peace movement. The very notion of passive resistence was deeply rooted in the bible and also the words and writing of Gandhi.

The idea of bearing witness, the idea of true love, the idea of loving one’s enemy, of turning the other cheek, of turning one’s enemy through love rather than through hate and violence. It was a very powerful message.

Congressman John Lewis came under criticism this past election when he compared the rhetoric of some on the right who were suggesting that Obama was a terrorist to that of Geoge Wallace. John Lewis is an American hero as few people probably truly realize. On the bridge to Selma, he was beaten within a few inches of his life.

In David Halberstam’s book, “The Children” which chronicles Lewis among other civil rights leaders, one of the most powerful moments came when one of Lewis’ chief tormentors in Selma came for a visit to Lewis’ Congressional Office to apologize for his actions from 20 years prior. His heart had been turned, not through violence, not through hate, but through the love and convictions of the civil rights movement.

It is that conviction and sacrifice that have enabled the world that we see today.

As King said shortly before his death:

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The parallels have always intrigued historians and observers. For in the bible, when the Jews were led by Moses, Moses himself never saw the promised land. But without his contributions, the Jews would never have made it.

Tomorrow Barack Obama fulfills the dream of a lifetime that most people never believed that they would see. Just over 40 years from the day that Martin Luther King Jr was killed, he will become the first African American Preisdent of this country.

As we all recognize this will not make the problems of the last forty years vanish and more than it will make the problems of inequality, hatred, and violence of the last 400 years go away.

However, President Obama ran on a platform of both change and hope. Tomorrow he gives us exactly that hope for change. He has long days ahead of him. It will be a difficult struggle. And like Dr. King he may not lead us into the promised land. He may merely open the gates to the new world for us and it will be up to us to walk through them.

But stop for a second. Throw down your ideology, preconceived notions, and your prejudices. Stop and reflect. Look at the crowds of people that gathered to watch Obama’s train route. Look at the faces in those crowds. You do not see white America reflected in those faces. You do not see Black America. You do not see blue America. You do not see red America. You truly see the United States of America reflected in those crowds. You see people that for the first time truly believe. You see young black men who can look into their eyes of their newborn children who believe for the first time in their lives that they can be whatever they want to be in life. You see the new hope of a generation, of a people, and of a nation. You see people coming together to give back service to their country. You see the sons and daughters of former slaves casting their votes with the sons and daughters of former slaveholders. You see in essence Martin’s dream from 1963.

There is still much to do in this country that still remains divided along all sorts of lines and cleavages and the perceptions of differences.

I close as Lincoln closed from his First Inaugural Address, that ironically Obama quoted from in his victory speech on November 4, 2008:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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10 thoughts on “Reflections on Martin Luther King Day as Barack Obama Becomes President”

  1. tansey thomas

    David, that speech is also often referred to as The Riverside Church Antiwar speech, etc. I agree that it is a beautiful, moving and powerful speech. I produced a panel discussion of it on DCTV with Ken Wagstaff, Dick Livingston, Hamza El-Nakal, Hanna Bibberstein a few years ago. They were terrfic and I won an award for it. DCTV runs it from time to time.

  2. Reform-minded

    …It is that conviction and sacrifice that have enabled the world that we see today….It is the conviction and sacrifice of many soldiers fighting for your right to say what you want that has kept this country free. My uncle died for his country in WWII, and my father fought along side his brother. My grandfather was an officer in the Navy during WWII. Had they not stepped up to the plate when called upon, Dr. Martin Luther King would not necessarily have been free to make his speeches.As far as the war in Iraq, think about it. Whether you agree or disagree as to our initial involvement, it is soldiers (many of them of color) keeping the peace over there, that has allowed Iraqis to be free to vote in elections and set up their own gov’t. For those of you who think we should unilaterally pull out, I ask what then? Allow Russia’s surrogate Iran and/or Syria to overrun the gov’t, and take over the oil fields? If you were bothered by $4 a gallon for gas, think what Iran has in mind to charge us if they are allowed to overtake Iraq. All the more reason for us to finish what we started in Iraq. Meanwhile we should be working like mad for alternative fuels to break our dependence on foreign oil. But can we afford an isolationist attitude after 9-11? An entire ocean will not insulate us anymore from the ugly realities of the world. Looks like Iran will be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. Exactly where do we go from here? There are NO EASY ANSWERS. I did not vote for Obama, and think he is going to make a lousy president. In fact, I will go so far as to say I believe he will be a one term president, much as Carter and Bush Sr. Only time will tell. However, I wish Obama all the best. He has a hard road ahead of him, saddled with problems that will be difficult to solve. So far, all I have seen is band-aid measures, rather than any effort at true reform from our gov’t (from Reagan on through Bush Jr.). But it is early yet, and everyone must give Obama a fighting chance, no matter their party affiliation.However, voters must not remain apathetic, but voice their displeasure at politicians who refuse to do the hard work. Increasing taxes or tax stimulus packages do not get at the root problems of banking misconduct, investment misconduct, gov’t waste, unbalanced budgets that encourage deficit spending. If we at home ran our household the way gov’t is run, we would be broke, with not a penny to our name and no one that would lend to us – and little sympathy from anyone at our sorry plight. But because taxpayers keep opening their wallets instead of holding their leaders accountable, we are going to get more of the same. Now is the time to push for real reform. Energy reform, securities reform, banking reform, education reform.

  3. Anonymous

    …However, voters must not remain apathetic, but voice their displeasure at politicians who refuse to do the hard work….I agree with that comment – don’t just blindly follow a President, allowing him to follow one blunder with many more blunders.I disagree with you on Iraq. I still do not understand what the objective is. I do understand the objective in Afganistan – clearly we have an enemy there.

  4. Reform-minded

    …I disagree with you on Iraq. I still do not understand what the objective is….To protect the oil fields from being overtaken by Iran, Syria, the Russians, whoever…which may mean we hide our intentions under the guise of spreading democracy, which isn’t a bad idea all on its own!

  5. Rich Rifkin

    …It is the conviction and sacrifice of many soldiers fighting for your right to say what you want that has kept this country free. Had they not stepped up to the plate when called upon, Dr. Martin Luther King would not necessarily have been free to make his speeches….While that is true, it is important to understand that most of the black leaders of the post-WW2 Civil Rights Movement served as officers in the War, too. It was in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and Air Corps that those black men learned leadership, gained confidence, and came to understand, having defeated Hitler’s racism in the name of democracy, how important it was for them, back in the United States, to have real democracy here and to end our racial prejudice….For those of you who think we should unilaterally pull out, I ask what then?…As I understand our agreement with Iraq — signed by Bush — our troops are to be replaced over the next 24 months by Iraqi troops. Where we are augmenting Iraqi police forces, Iraqis will take over that role, too. Obama campaigned (I think disingenuously) on the promise that he would get us out of Iraq much faster than anyone else. But at this point, it looks like the Obama pull out will be roughly the same as Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s would have been.If we had pulled out two years ago, the result would have been a disaster. But things have greatly stabilized there, and in two more years, even if Iraq will not be a liberal democracy, it should have a decent military able to keep order and prevent a civil war….Allow Russia’s surrogate Iran and/or Syria to overrun the gov’t, and take over the oil fields?…1. Iran is not a surrogate of Russia. The main thing they have in common is they dislike us. Nobody likes Russia, least of all its neighbors. (In the case of Iran, it is their unpopular government which hates us. The Iranian people love America.)2. Iran is going to have influence in Iraq. They are the world’s two largest Shiite-majority countries. But Iran will not …control… Iraq. And Iran will be making a huge mistake long-term if they interfere in Iraqi politics the way they have in Lebanon. Al-Sadr is terribly unpopular, even among Shiites. If Iran backs him and arms him, after we have left, the rest of Iraq will turn against Iran, and Iran’s influence will disappear in Iraq.3. No foreign power will take over Iraq’s oil. As hideous as Iran’s foreign policy has been, Iran has never directly invaded a neighbor….If you were bothered by $4 a gallon for gas, think what Iran has in mind to charge us if they are allowed to overtake Iraq….That won’t happen, now that Iraq is stable….All the more reason for us to finish what we started in Iraq….By 2011, when all our troops are out, we will have finished — though impossible to say the mission benefitted us….But can we afford an isolationist attitude after 9-11?…Other than Ron Paul and Ralph Nader, nobody was proposing isolationism. Paul and Nader, whatever good points each may have, are unpopular and irrelevant at this point.

  6. Davis High Alum

    It’s a new day for our country.We have a new President. He’s Black. He’s also white. This is profound in so many ways.He loves his wife and daughters. He loves this country and its people. He’s brilliant, compassionate, focused and ready for the task at hand.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is with all of us today in spirit…watching history unfold…watching us open new doors of possibility and hope.Let us savor this exquisite moment in time. Let us learn from it, grow from it…let it inspire us and inform our thoughts and actions. This is a glimpse of the Mountaintop…many wonders await us in the Promised Land.Remember where we’ve been…remember our struggles. Remember our triumphs.Celebrate this day.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    …It is the conviction and sacrifice of many soldiers fighting for your right to say what you want that has kept this country free. My uncle died for his country in WWII, and my father fought along side his brother. My grandfather was an officer in the Navy during WWII. Had they not stepped up to the plate when called upon, Dr. Martin Luther King would not necessarily have been free to make his speeches….And they get their own day to be honored. Yesterday we honored the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  8. Reform-minded

    …Iran is not a surrogate of Russia….Oh no? How come we keep finding Russia’s thumbprint in the form of weapons and military advisors in every hot spot that has to do with anti-Americanism? As we invaded Iraq, Russian military advisors were leaving, but not before they outfitted the Iraquis w military equipment. …But Iran will not …control… Iraq….That’s what Kuwait thought before they were taken over by Iraq….No foreign power will take over Iraq’s oil….If the weak Iraq gov’t cannot sustain itself, which is a very good possiblity with the constant IEDs, suicide bombers, and terroristic elements that keep invading from Iran (at Russia’s instigation), then there is a very good possibility that Iran will look to Iraq’s oil fields as something to be coveted. Russia just made an attempt to take over oil fields recently in its own back yard. See a pattern here?

  9. Anonymous

    David M. Greenwald said… …It is the conviction and sacrifice of many soldiers fighting for your right to say what you want that has kept this country free. My uncle died for his country in WWII, and my father fought along side his brother. My grandfather was an officer in the Navy during WWII. Had they not stepped up to the plate when called upon, Dr. Martin Luther King would not necessarily have been free to make his speeches….And they get their own day to be honored. Yesterday we honored the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.1/20/09 7:52 AMDavid, Do you always miss the point?

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