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Martin Luther King and the Two 9/11s

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Posted on Aug 29, 2013
InSapphoWeTrust (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Ariel Dorfman, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

So much has changed since that hot day in August 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his famous words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A black family lives in the White House and official segregation is a thing of the past. Napalm no longer falls on the homes and people of Vietnam and the president of that country has just visited the United States in order to seek “a new relationship.”

A health-care law has been passed that guarantees medical services to many millions who, 50 years ago, were entirely outside the system. Gays were then hiding their sexuality everywhere—the Stonewall riots were six years away—and now the Supreme Court has recognized that same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits. Only the year before,  Rachel Carson had published her groundbreaking ecological classic Silent Spring,  then one solitary book.  Today, there is a vigorous movement in the land and across the Earth dedicated to stopping the extinction of our planet.

In 1963, nuclear destruction threatened our species every minute of the day and now, despite the proliferation of such weaponry to new nations, we do not feel that tomorrow is likely to bring 10,000 Hiroshimas raining down on humanity.

So much has changed—and yet so little.


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The placards raised in last week’s commemorative march on Washington told exactly that story: calls for ending the drone wars in foreign lands; demands for jobs and equality; protests against mass incarceration, restrictions on the right to an abortion, cuts to education, assaults upon the workers of America, and the exploitation and persecution of immigrants; warnings about the state-by-state spread of voter suppression laws. And chants filling the air, rising above multiple images of Trayvon Martin, denouncing gun violence and clamoring for banks to be taxed. Challenges to us all to occupy every space available and return the country to the people.

Yes, so much has changed—and yet so little.

In my own life, as well.

Words for an Assassination Moment

I wasn’t able to attend last week’s march, but I certainly would have, if events of a personal nature hadn’t interfered. It was just a matter of getting in a car with my wife, Angélica, and driving four hours from our home in Durham, North Carolina.

Fifty years ago, that would have been impossible.  We were living in distant Chile and didn’t even know that a march on Washington was taking place. I was 21 years old at the time and, like so many of my generation, entangled in the struggle to liberate Latin America.  The speech by King that was to influence my life so deeply did not even register with me.

What I can remember with ferocious precision, however, is the place, the date, and even the hour when, five years later, I had occasion to listen for the first time to those “I have a dream” words, heard the incantations of that melodious baritone, that emotional certainty of victory. I can remember the occasion so clearly because it happened to be April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was killed, and ever since, his dream and his death have been grievously conjoined in my mind as they still are, almost half a century later.

I recall how I was sitting with Angélica and our one-year-old child, Rodrigo, in a living room high up in the hills of Berkeley, the university town in California.  We had arrived from Chile barely a week earlier. Our hosts, an American family who generously offered us temporary lodgings while our apartment was being readied, had switched on the television.  We all solemnly watched the nightly news, probably delivered by Walter Cronkite, the famed CBS anchorman. And there it was, the murder of Martin Luther King in that Memphis hotel, and then came the first reports of riots all over America and, finally, a long excerpt from his “I have a dream” speech.

It was only then, I think, that I began to realize who Martin Luther King had been, what we had lost with his departure from this world, the legend he was becoming before my very eyes. In later years, I would often return to that speech and would, on each occasion, hew from its mountain of meanings a different rock upon which to stand and understand the world.

Beyond my amazement at King’s eloquence, my immediate reaction was not so much to be inspired as to be puzzled, close to despair. After all, the slaying of this man of peace was answered not by a pledge to persevere in his legacy, but by furious uprisings in the slums of black America.  The disenfranchised were avenging their dead leader by burning down the ghettos in which they felt themselves imprisoned and impoverished, using the fire this time to proclaim that the non-violence King had advocated was useless, that the only way to end inequity in this world was through the barrel of a gun, that the only way to make the powerful pay attention was to scare the hell out of them.

King’s assassination, therefore, savagely brought up a question that was already bedeviling me—and so many other activists—in the late sixties: What was the best method to achieve radical change? Could we picture a rebellion in the way that Martin Luther King had envisioned it, without drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred, without treating our adversaries as they had treated us? Or did the road into the palace of justice and the bright day of brotherhood inevitably lead through fields of violence?  Was violence truly the unavoidable midwife of revolution?

Martin Luther King and the Dream of a Revolutionary Chile

These were questions that, back in Chile, I would soon be forced to answer, not through cloudy theoretical musings, but while immersed in the day-to-day reality of history-in-the-making.  I’m talking about the years after 1970 when Salvador Allende was elected Chile’s president and we became the first country to try to build socialism through peaceful means. Allende’s vision of social change, elaborated over decades of struggle and thought, was similar to King’s, even though they came from very different political and cultural traditions.

Allende, for instance, was not at all religious and would not have agreed with King that physical force must be met with soul force.  He favored instead the force of social organizing. At a time when many in Latin America were still dazzled by the armed struggle proposed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, however, it was Allende’s singular accomplishment to imagine the two quests of our era to be inextricably connected: the quest by the dispossessed of this Earth for more democracy as well as civil freedoms, and the parallel quest for social justice and economic empowerment.

Unfortunately, it was Allende’s fate to echo King’s.  Three years after King’s death in Memphis, it was Allende’s choice to die in the midst of a Washington-backed military coup against his democratic government in the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile.

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