What Would MLK Think of America’s Modern Wars?

It’s time for the U.S. to adhere to true nonviolence.

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gestures during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

This month, Washington – and the world – commemorates the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington. While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s progressive dreaming of a world where racial and economic equality is commonplace may have been radical then, and still remains out of reach for millions now, his most radical thinking – and what would still get him in trouble with federal authorities to this day – is his messaging on nonviolence and its implications for U.S. foreign policy. 

King's message, at the time, was supported by similar messaging about the importance of peace by President John F. Kennedy, at an American University commencement address on June 10, 1963, and by Robert F. Kennedy and his "menace of violence" speech, delivered on April 5, 1968, at the City Club of Cleveland.  If their ideas were implemented today, they would radically reform the way America engages Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Mali and Somalia, the country from which I returned this week. 

A more genuine commemorating of Martin Luther King, Jr., then, would be willing to countenance his core commitment to nonviolence and to carry it forward.   On Saturday, August 24, 2013, the National Action Network and Communities Without Boundaries International will revisit Martin Luther King Jr.'s righteous stomping ground in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall and call for a National Action to Realize the Dream. The time to act is now.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

In light of America's growing militarism, and in light of the fact that we are at war with multiple countries, we must be ready to stand up for what Martin stood for: nonviolence.  He would not support the wars of today, unlike what former Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson once claimed, nor would he support the growing militarization of our domestic and foreign policy. 

In fact, King called it like it is in his speech "Beyond Vietnam" -- an address delivered to the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, at Riverside Church, on April 4, 1967, New York City -- saying that "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government" – and that is why he couldn't be silent about the pervasiveness of violence in our society. 

Nor can we be silent. That is how one commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr.  The destruction we did to the Vietnamese, as Dr. King so painfully describes, is the same destruction we are doing to Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Somalis, Libyans and Pakistanis – and more.

Moreover, the militarization we are witnessing is evident in all facets of our government.  We are in active war with at least a half-dozen countries, with Special Forces and troops in over half of the world.  We are increasingly militarizing our development and aid approaches, with the Pentagon taking over the reconstruction agenda.  We are militarizing our municipal police forces at home, with cities acquiring military-grade weaponry and machinery. And we are even militarizing our immigration policy, with drones, military-grade weapons, fencing and surveillance.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

This is not financially sustainable, morally excusable or legally justifiable.  We must thus ask ourselves, as Robert F. Kennedy asked, "What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created?" Whether one is talking about small arms trafficking in America or our drone program in Africa, Robert's words are as poignant as ever:

We seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. This much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

Robert Kennedy, like Dr. King, knew that violence was not only physical, but structural. "For there is another kind of violence," he said, "slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter."  The moral imperative for America in preventing physical or structural violence was clear: "We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

President John F. Kennedy was no less categorical than his brother in the AU commencement address: "What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children -- not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women -- not merely peace in our time but peace for all time."

In a rebuke of peace-oriented pessimism, which was as relevant in 1963 as it is in 2013, Kennedy continued: "Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable--that mankind is doomed--that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade--therefore, they can be solved by man."

So what do we do now?  How do we honor Martin, Robert and Jack's progressive peace-oriented policies, a stance which ultimately sacrificed their lives?  Martin's ultimatum is a start:  "America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood. We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation."

How true. We are at a crossroads, America, and it is about time we took the path less traveled by – the nonviolent one.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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