This Monday, the United States will commemorate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday. Throughout the day, Americans will hear stories of his fights against segregation, his powerful speech in Washington, and his struggle for voting rights. These are the stories and the history that Americans now feel comfortable with, and these are the parts of King's life that we embrace and honor.
But each year, our celebration of King's vision is regrettably incomplete. Toward the end of his life, he espoused political views that made America--then and now -- quite uncomfortable, and it is that part of his life that many Americans have ignored. Given our current international climate, however, it may be high time to take a second look at those views and to see if we can glean any valuable lessons from them.
King denounced U.S. foreign policy, criticizing America's "giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism," and calling the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." From Vietnam to Asia to Latin America, King said the United States was "on the wrong side of a world revolution."
Were King alive today, what would he make of the current war on terrorism? It is true that terrorism poses historically new and unique threats; but communism in King's time presented an equally menacing peril. King told his followers to "love your enemies." It would be hard to imagine him embracing some of the war fever that gripped this nation after September 11, 2001. And how would King reconcile his belief in "turning the other cheek" with President George W. Bush's doctrine of preemptive strikes?
It is also unlikely that King, who cautioned that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death," would endorse the enormous price tag of our war with Iraq, especially when Iraq's link to the events of September 11 is hazy at best and when there are daunting economic concerns at home.
When King assumed such positions, his words were called "demagogic slander" by Time magazine. The Washington Post editorialized that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people." The FBI tagged him as the "most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country."
It is safe to assume that, were King alive today, he would remind us that people everywhere--regardless of religion, nationality, or creed--are united in "a single garment of destiny" and that no nation should act unilaterally. He would assert that it is only through treating our enemies as children of God that we will ever create true global security.
And, even in the face of nuclear and chemical threats, he would remain steadfast in his belief in the power of nonviolence.
This year, more than ever, we ought to rediscover the life of Martin Luther King Jr.--all of it. We ought to look at his life in its entirety--both the easy and the challenging parts. We may find that, once again, the man has a great deal to teach us.
Patrick W. Gavin is a writer living in Washington, DC, and a former history instructor.
By Patrick W. Gavin
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved