Today we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday. He would have been ninety-one last Wednesday (January 15). Dr. King is remembered for his fierce commitment to civil rights, but exactly one year before he was assassinated in Memphis during a sanitation workers strike, he gave his most radical speech titled, “A Time to Break Silence” or “Beyond Vietnam.” Delivered at the historic Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King bluntly observed how he had “betrayed” his own conscience by not speaking out more forcefully against the United States and its actions in Vietnam. Calling the U.S. government the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” Dr. King recognized the “bombs that fall in Vietnam explode at home.” How could the United States win what President Johnson called the “war on poverty” when it was spending billions of dollars in an unjust, immoral, and unconstitutional war half-way across the world? How could the United States fight a war for freedom, democracy, and justice when it could not guarantee those same things to African Americans and Mexican Americans?
During his nearly one-hour address, Dr. King eloquently criticized the United States and called for a peaceful resolution to the Vietnam War. However, he brilliantly noted that it wasn’t sufficient to oppose the war since it was merely a symptom of a “far deeper malady within the American spirit.” Dr. King worried that unless peace activists and concerned citizens addressed this reality they would be organizing against future wars and interventions in countries all over the world. Indeed, the United States has been involved in wars nearly every single year since its inception and in the post-World War II period, even after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the United States intervened in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and in many other countries under the guise of the “war on terrorism.” Today, the “world is a battlefield;” meaning, the United States has the “right” to fight terrorist organizations wherever they might exist. We even have the right to assassinate military officials from Iran, according to the Trump Administration, based on flimsy claims that such actions are necessary for “national security” purposes. This “targeted killing” brought the United States and Iran to the edge of war, with activists calling for peaceful negotiations and diplomatic alternatives.
The recent hostilities with Iran intersect with another calamitous moment—President Trump’s impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. Nearly twenty years ago, President Clinton bombed Iraq as the U.S. House of Representatives impeached him in December 1998. “Wagging the dog” is a long-established tactic, as political leaders seek to divert the public’s attention from presidential wrong-doing to manufactured enemies and crises. Given the current configuration of the Senate, Trump will surely not be convicted and removed from office. He will likely survive and possibly obtain a second term in office.
Four more years is mind-boggling when one considers the devastating impact President Trump’s policies have had on people of color, women, working-class people, immigrants, and queer people. And then there is the catastrophic impact his policies have had on the environment. Trump’s actions are indeed frightening and raise the question—will democracy survive? We should openly recognize that the United States has never been a democracy. Even after the historic social justice movements in the 1960s, mass incarceration, as scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrated in her widely acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow, emerged in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, stripping mostly young African American men of their voting rights. Moreover, as Emory University Professor Barbara Anderson has shown in her two best-selling books, White Rage and One Person, No Vote, millions of people, mostly people of color, younger and older people, working-class people, and poor people are being disenfranchised through voting identification laws, gerrymandering, and other machinations. The Republican Party (along with the U.S. Supreme Court, particularly Chief Justice John Roberts who is presiding over Trump’s impeachment) is responsible for shredding voting rights, as it understands, demographically speaking, the only way it can continue to govern is through brazenly white supremacist policies.
As dangerous as Trump is, we should recall, as Dr. King did when speaking about going “beyond Vietnam,” the 45th President of the United States is a “symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” That malady is capitalism which foments racial and gender divisions, undermining the potential for multi-racial coalitions and solidarity. Before he was killed, Dr. King called for a Poor People’s Campaign which would bring together poor white, black, Mexican, Native American, and Asian American people together. The Poor People’s Campaign would be the vehicle for creating what Dr. King called a “radical revolution in values.” King thus understood that while opposing wars and politicians was critical, what was necessary was revolutionary, transformative, systemic change. Unless the system is replaced, change, if it occurs at all, will be gradual when it should be dramatic. As scientists and climate activists all over the world have told us, time is running out. A radical revolution in values is needed now more than ever. Thankfully, the new Poor People’s Campaign, headed by Reverend Dr. William Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis, is working to make that revolution a reality by organizing protests and marches all across the country. Thus, even though the world is surely falling apart, young climate justice activists, immigrants, fast-food workers, farm workers, students, janitors, teachers, religious folks, and many others are rising up and fighting back. One can only hope that in 2020 they will win.