Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Legacy of Dr. King

I missed this recent post by Taylor Branch in the New York Times about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Branch, the author of “At Canaan’s Edge,” the third volume in his history of the modern civil rights era, argues that King's legacy isn't just civil rights about non-violence:

Many of Dr. King’s closest comrades rejected his commitment to nonviolence. The civil rights movement created waves of history so long as it remained nonviolent, then stopped. Arguably, the most powerful tool for democratic reform was the first to become passé. It vanished among intellectuals, on campuses and in the streets. To this day, almost no one asks why.

We must reclaim the full range of blessings from his movement. For Dr. King, race was in most things, but defined nothing alone. His appeal was rooted in the larger context of nonviolence. His stated purpose was always to redeem the soul of America. He put one foot in the Constitution and the other in scripture. “We will win our freedom,” he said many times, “because the heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” To see Dr. King and his colleagues as anything less than modern founders of democracy — even as racial healers and reconcilers — is to diminish them under the spell of myth.


Dr. King showed most profoundly that in an interdependent world, lasting power grows against the grain of violence, not with it. Both the cold war and South African apartheid ended to the strains of “We Shall Overcome,” defying all preparations for Armageddon. The civil rights movement remains a model for new democracy, sadly neglected in its own birthplace. In Iraq today, we are stuck on the Vietnam model instead. There is no more salient or neglected field of study than the relationship between power and violence.

We recoil from nonviolence at our peril. Dr. King rightly saw it at the heart of democracy. Our nation is a great cathedral of votes — votes not only for Congress and for president, but also votes on Supreme Court decisions and on countless juries. Votes govern the boards of great corporations and tiny charities alike. Visibly and invisibly, everything runs on votes. And every vote is nothing but a piece of nonviolence.

We pray in the name of Jesus and honor the memory of King, but we live by the the myth of redemptive violence. We sacrifice our sons and daughters in the name of peace. We think that we can bring democracy to Iraq by the barrel of a gun. Instead of being the world leader in exporting foreign aid, championing human rights, sending brigades of Peace Corps volunteers around the world, teaching the skills of peace-making and non-violence to our children... we export war and guns, violate human rights, and idolize trained killing machines.

An argument can be made that we need a military force to protect our country in a dangerous world, but the world would be a much less dangerous place if we did more than pay lip service to the legacy of Dr. King. What would the world look like if actually lived the teachings of Jesus and practiced the skills King taught us of non-violent resistance to injustice?

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