Editor’s note: Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. To honor King’s legacy of nonviolent protest on the 50th anniversary of his death, Truthdig is rerunning this article, which first appeared on Dec. 19, 2017.
“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.”
—Percy Shelley, “The Masque of Anarchy”
The latest manifestation of inhumanity is the Trump administration’s “National Security Strategy of the United States.” Donald Trump says the plan puts “America First.” A more accurate slogan might be “Empire First” or “Imperialism First” or “Militarism First” or “Inequality First” or “Racism First.” Take your pick.
The rhetoric and delivery has changed with Trump, but the underlying message of U.S. empire is the same as it was with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and just about with every president since the founding of the United States: War is good. Peace is bad. An exception may have been John F. Kennedy, and we all know how his presidency ended.
Trump is not the first American to use the “America First” motto. The phrase has decades-long roots in nativism, nationalism and anti-Semitism. In the 1930s and ’40s, Nazi-friendly Americans popularized the words, including media tycoon William Randolph Heart, who admired Hitler’s governing style, and famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, who was impressed with Germany’s “organized vitality.”
To be clear, Trump is not the reason for the current state of America. He is the consequence of hundreds of years of racism, inequality and militarism. But let’s make the Trump presidency the last to push “America First.”
The “America First” vision continues the illusion of democracy and belies the hypocrisy of a U.S. government that proclaims absolute equality for all but gives power and privileges to an elite few.
America can—and should—be better than that.
How about we channel another famous American who dreamed of building a great nation where all men, women and children lived together as brothers and sisters in peace and harmony, with respect, liberty and justice for the poor, powerless, and voiceless, where people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin? That man was Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of pushing “America First,” he championed “Peace First” and applied the teaching and strategy of nonviolent resistance to fight for civil rights and basic human standards.
In June 1957, King gave a speech at the University of California, Berkeley called “The Power of Peaceful Persuasion” on the use of nonviolence in the civil rights movement. He was only 28 years old, and he expressed his commitment to nonviolent resistance in the Gandhian tradition, using the Montgomery bus boycott as an example of the power of nonviolent action, concluding that “it was ultimately more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation.”
Not everyone was sold on the approach.
We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.”
Over the next decade, King remained committed to the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence. According to the King Encyclopedia at Stanford University, King’s concept of nonviolence had six key tenets.
1. Evil can be resisted without violence.
2. Seek to win the opponent’s “friendship and understanding,” not humiliate him.
3. Oppose evil, not the people committing evil acts.
4. Be willing to suffer retaliation, because suffering can be redemptive.
5. Be motivated by love in the Greek sense of agape—an “understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men … an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return”—to avoid “external physical violence” and “internal violence of spirit.”
6. Have “deep faith in the future” through a belief that “the universe is on the side of justice.”
King preached and practiced these principles until his death on April 4, 1968. A few weeks before he died, King gave his last speech in Los Angeles, at a private home in Beverly Hills.
American writer and social critic James Baldwin introduced King with words that also could describe our current moment:
“This moment in 1968 is a kind of culmination of things that began in this country quite a long time ago, and specifically speaking in 1954, with the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the schools, and in 1957, when Martin was thrown that ball in Montgomery, Alabama, when Rosa Parks refused to stand up, because her feet hurt.
“Now, we’ve watched in this 11 years, in this 13 years, depending on the point of view, in this country, a terrible dissent. What Rosa Parks was saying in Montgomery, in 1956, and what these Negroes were saying in their march for 389 days, the country did not want to hear and did not hear.
“As time rolled on, and kids, including people like Stokely Carmichael, were being beaten with chains and thrown into jail, marching up and down those dusty highways trying to change the consciences of this country. And still nobody heard and nobody really cared. And poor Martin spent most of his time in and out of jail as all of us know, trying to redeem what we claim we live by, the principle of love your neighbor, the principle of what happens to you is happening to me, the principle John Dunne talked about when he said that ‘any man’s death diminishes me.’
“But in this country, race and Christianity and power are so tied together in self-interest that no one heard it. It’s only now that people are beginning to suspect that something terrifying has happened, and with our consent. Because we do know that we cannot fight a civil war, which is what this fervent is about, because I am your brother. I was born here. My father’s and my father’s blood is in this soil, and nothing will drive me from this country. It also belongs to me.
“We cannot fight a civil war and a global war, too, at the same time, and especially if both are predicated on the same principle. I am not now accusing the Americans of being wicked. I am accusing us of having allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into a state of ignorance, which allows us to forget that the peasant in Saigon and the peasant in Detroit are the same people. What we don’t know about the peasant in Saigon is what we don’t know about sambo here, and that has destroyed the American sense of reality.
“I suppose what we’re here to do tonight is to begin to correct that.
“People who can believe that I was happy on the levy picking cotton or happy in the mines digging coal, and giving all this away to other people for their wealth, and unable to protect my house, my women, my children, are people who can believe I did this out of love for other people, and that I was happy doing it, and all those songs and dances I learned while I was doing it, meant that I was happy, can believe anything.
“I am afraid that the people who claim to represent us in Washington these days from the president on down do believe that. And do believe, and they believe so wrong, that they have the right to tell me how to live and aren’t able to begin to suspect that other people, sambo, for example, can teach us a great deal about how to live.
“… I think that the most hopeful thing that is happening in this country now is that finally cities are being blown up, the isolation of black and white being more surreal than it’s ever been before, the great, great gap between all of us in this country, all over this country, and the fact that the government does not in any way whatever respond to what the people feel is finally forcing all of us to realize that the life of this country is in our hands.
“… It is not a Negro problem or a civil rights problem. What it is for all Americans now, and I mean this literally from the very bottom of my soul, it is now a matter of life or death, and it’s up to us.”
Though the speech that followed Baldwin’s introduction is not King’s most famous, it is one of his best and most powerful, as he explained the true history of slavery in the United States (the kind that does not appear in U.S. history books) and railed against the evils of racism, poverty and militarism that plagued America—the same evils that confront America today.
King demanded equality for all Americans and believed that ending war was the only way to end inequality.
We can’t have a campaign like this in Washington [to fight poverty and injustice] without recognizing the fact that as long as the war in Vietnam is taking place, we cannot seriously address ourselves to the great problems, and the blight, and the despair, and the slum conditions of our cities. And that is why I have been determined to keep these two issues together.
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal. And I had watched that war in Vietnam and I came to see that I could no longer be silent about it. Our nation is committing a grave crime, and I am convinced that if we, the people of goodwill, don’t unite and keep the pressure on, and demand an end to that war in Vietnam, that the curtain of doom may well come down on American civilization.
“The soul of our nation is being lost. Our image is terribly scarred. We are morally and politically isolated all over the world. We are playing havoc with our domestic destinies.
“We are saying to the world that we are a terribly arrogant nation. … We are arrogant in feeling that we have everything to teach every other nation and nothing to learn about them and learn from them. We are arrogant in feeling that we are fighting for the ‘rights’ in quotes of another people, and we won’t put our own house in order. We are arrogant in sending young black men and white men to fight in brutal solidarity on the battlefields of Vietnam, and yet when they come back home, it is doubtful that they’ll be able to live together on the same block. These are the facts of life.
“But not only that, the longer we stay in the war in Vietnam, the closer and closer we push the whole human race to destruction. So we must oppose this war. We must oppose it because it is evil, it is unjust, it is inhuman, and because it can destroy everybody.”
King’s vision for America may have gotten him killed, but the time has come for America to resurrect his spirit and fulfill his dream.
America is hurting. Today, the U.S. has one of the highest levels of inequality in the history of the world, with more wars (and secret wars) being fought around the world than ever before. Afghanistan has become our Vietnam. The GOP tax scam will widen the injustice gap. And most Americans say and do nothing.
A national security strategy predicated on violence does not make America safer. But if lies get told enough, they become accepted as truth. Imagine if the United States cut its immense military budget and created a Department of Peace and put billions of dollars toward education and social and environmental programs that supported the common good for our country and world. Of course, the rich, who can’t seem to get enough power or money, have made creating a just and fair America seem like an impossible dream, but it does not have to be.
Just as Martin Luther King broke his silence and took action 50 years ago, the time for silence and inaction is over. Anyone who wants to heal American can join the struggle and help.
“If we are to get on the right side of the world revolution,” King said, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
We must keep moving toward King’s goal of freedom. Freedom from war. Freedom from racism, poverty and injustice. A “Peace First” path is the only way forward. You don’t fight fire with fire. You fight fire with water.
Now is the time to start preaching and practicing peace, so we can get beyond our Vietnam—the “America First” mindset.
Because until everyone’s free, no one’s free.