My understanding of what MLK Jr. was all about has changed quite a bit since I participated in a school-wide hand-holding circle in his honor at Dorchester Elementary School back in 1994. One of the most skilled orators in US history, King was one of the rare radicals with a mainstream voice. His contemporaries - arguably rightly - accused him of pandering to the honkies, but his contributions to altering the collective consciousness of the US populace cannot be denied.
My favorite King speech has always been "Beyond Vietnam," which he delivered at Riverside Church on April 4th, 1967, to a meeting of the Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. He advocates speaking out against the racist, classist military machinery that channels poor men of color through the armed forces for the purposes of killing other poor men of color in Southeast Asia.
"We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society," said King, "and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem."
He urged his followers to act against this blatant injustice, despite the hardships and dangers of such activism:
"Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on."
His words are especially relevant today, when tens of thousands of Marines are headed to Haiti to "help" with "aid efforts." The "restoration of law and order" appears to be the US priority in Haiti, and reports of "looting," "riots," and "chaos" serve only to legitimize the presence of foreign armed forces in Haiti. Never mind that these same reports came out during the Hurricane Katrina "aid efforts," and were used to substantiate the need for the National Guard to police the city under what I can only describe as martial law.
The looting of food supplies during a time of hunger is not unreasonable activity. People need to eat. If the Marines want to patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince, they should first set up water and food distribution stations, and assist the medical personnel with whatever operations require help.
One of the first actions the US took in Haiti was to seize control of the Port-au-Prince airport. French and Belgian official spokespeople have indicated that planes carrying aid supplies from their countries to Haiti have been unfairly delayed from landing at the airport because US military planes and personnel are given priority.
Structural change is of course what Haitians need. But the last thing they need is the imposition of US neo-colonial systems of dependence and exploitation. I worry that the presence of US armed forces wielding machine guns and Gatorade is not the best way to facilitate justice. "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar," King reminds us. "It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
An audio file of "Beyond Vietnam" can be found here.