I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent ...
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Riverside Church, NYC, April 4, 1967
If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were still among us, he would see President Obama as a symbol of progress toward the American ideal of equality. But he would be appalled at the administration's continuing purveyance of violence. And, as inequality is a partner to violence, he would find the symbol lacking in substance as inequality remains rampant.
Dr. King would
observe an America increasingly divided into two
distinct and unequal classes: the rich and powerful,
and the rest of us. He'd see bankers prospering as
foreclosures increase; insurance executives reaping
profits as people die for lack of health care; and
the military-industrial-congressional complex
advocating and perpetuating war (and enjoying the
spoils) as the underclass fights, suffers, and pays
America's founders, who established equality as a human right, understood the connection between war and class inequality. James Madison wrote, “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.” (Today's war debts will burden the next generations; war taxes take form as reduced services — e.g. the national health care we can't afford as most of our federal budget pays for past, present, and future wars.)
Beyond this domestic dichotomy of class, Dr. King would see inequality deeply entrenched in our foreign policy and largely responsible for our perpetual state of war. The notion of American exceptionalism — that we are better, smarter, stronger, and especially, more virtuous than everyone else in the world — gives us the right, even the duty, to select (or depose) the leaders of other nations, to choose and impose their forms of economy and government, and to allocate their natural resources. We bestow this beneficence on them through the threat or the use of military force.
That's why we have 737 foreign military bases with 255,000 troops deployed across a world divided into U.S. military commands.
This inequality of exceptionalism pervades our culture. Our media and our government pay scant attention to civilian casualties of other countries.
Foreign nationals are less valuable than Americans. Our losses are tragedies; theirs are collateral damage. The American public remains callously indifferent to the suffering of human “others.” According to polls, a majority of us would approve of torture — a war crime for which our enemies have been executed.
We must overcome this superiority complex by recognizing that all people, of all countries, are created equal. Pay heed to Dr. King's words at Riverside (just substitute “Afghanistan” for “Vietnam”):
“Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.”
Dr. King understood that we are all in this world together and we must stand up for one another — not just “the poor of America” but “the suffering poor” of the whole world. The initiative must be “ours.” We can't continue to cling to the audacious hope that elected “leaders” will stop the wars, end the violence and promote equality. History shows that change only occurs when the people take charge. It was people — abolitionists, suffragists, unionists, and civil rights activists — not political leaders, who demanded the changes that ended slavery, expanded voting rights, made workplaces fair and safe, and put a stop to Jim Crow. It was people who ended the Vietnam War. We would honor these heroes, including Dr. King, by continuing their work.
There is urgency. Our great global problems, such as the climate crisis, can only be addressed through the human solidarity which peace and equality will bring. The initiative must be ours.