Yesterday, the forty-second anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, various commentators focused on one of his lesser known speeches. That speech was delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City; and it made him a pariah among the movers and shakers of his time. In the speech, King voiced his opposition to the War in Vietnam. His reasons were many. But, taken together, they added up to the fact that the war was an affront to justice. Admitting that truth, however, was not easy. "Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth," King said,
men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
The war was also an affront to King's faith in non-violence. But, more than that, it was "devastating the hopes of the poor at home" by transferring the resources that were originally targeted for the "war on poverty" to the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Citing a recently released report, "State of the Dream 2010: Drained," from the group United for a Fair Economy, Bill Moyers on Friday drew his viewers' attention to this sentence: "The Great Recession has pulled the plug on communities of color, draining jobs and homes at alarming rates while exacerbating persistent inequalities of wealth and income." Despite the election of Barack Obama, not much has changed for the people whose concerns King championed. "We are at a perilous moment," Moyers said:
The individualist, greed driven free market ideology that both our major parties have pursued is at odds with what most Americans really care about. Popular support for either party has struck bottom, as more and more agree that growing inequality is bad for the country, that corporations have too much power, that money in politics has corrupted our system, and that working families and poor communities need and deserve help because the free market has failed to generate shared prosperity -- its famous unseen hand has become a closed fist.
A year to the day after King delivered his Riverside speech, he was assassinated. He knew that anger was brewing in the ghettos of the country. It erupted after that rifle bullet ended his life. That was why he warned his audience that "tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now." That was also why Americans had to choose wisely. "The choice is ours," he said, "and, though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment in history."
The Vietnam War has come and gone; and it is now generally acknowledged to have been a colossal mistake. Like the financial meltdown, from which we are now emerging, it was the consequence of monumental arrogance and stupidity. But the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised remains the same -- in the United States and around the world. Once again we live at a crucial moment in history. King was a man for all seasons. Forty-two years after his death, he still asks us to choose justice.