January 22, 2008 — Martin Luther King Jr.'s recorded voice filled the auditorium in the University of Virginia Library's Harrison/Small Institute as he explained the reasons for his anti-Vietnam War views, saying he was "compelled to see war as an enemy of the poor."
About 100 students, faculty and staff members as well as members of the local community attended the commemoration of King's birth on Monday, Jan. 21 to hear a panel respond to his speech and his contributions to the anti-war movement.
Introducing the program, "Chiefly About War Matters," U.Va. English professor Deborah McDowell said, "In many ways, King's anti-war positions [against the Vietnam War], outlined in the controversial speeches he delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, remain remarkably resonant now, 40 years later."
McDowell, interim director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute of Afro-American and African Studies, one of the event's co-sponsors, introduced the panelists and the discussion of King's stance.
Expressing his anti-war views toward the end of his foreshortened life got Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "into trouble," said panelist Rev. Lehman Bates, pastor of Charlottesville's Ebenezer Baptist Church, but his clarity of argument and passionate vision rang out as he spoke of his choice to oppose the Vietnam War.
The panelists — Bates; Maurice Apprey, U.Va. dean of the Office of African American Affairs and professor of psychiatry; U.Va. law student Erva Cockfield; U.Va. professor of politics Robert Fatton; and U.Va. English professor Herbert Tucker, standing in for political writer Helena Cobban, who had to change her plans and go abroad to interview the president of Syria — looked at the content of King's late anti-war speeches that are "least known, less analyzed and most controversial," said McDowell.
In his anti-war speeches, King connected three elements plaguing society and government: "the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation."
He called for a radical revolution of societal values to shift from being thing-oriented to person-oriented, a revolution that would lead Americans to question their government's policies and values.
King made the connection between war and the civil rights struggle because the program on poverty was overtaken by the military build-up in Vietnam, he said.
When he contrasted the cost of killing an enemy soldier to spending on an individual classified as poor, King said he was "increasingly compelled to see war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such … and that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home, but also sending their sons, brothers and husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion."
King said a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense instead of programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. Therefore, he said he saw the decision to speak out as an absolute necessity for the survival of mankind. He suggested that loyalties must become ecumenical and nations loyal to mankind. He also said "there would be no meaningful solution until there is some attempt to know these people and hear their broken cries…"
Bates highlighted the choice King made between self-preservation — one everybody is naturally tempted to choose — and doing what is right. King was silenced not longer after he stepped on the international stage to speak against war, he noted, and war opponents are dealing with the same dilemma today. He said that so far, we as a people have failed in not moving ahead from civil rights to human rights.
Born in Ghana and a member of the University faculty since 1980, Apprey has dedicated his life to social change within various kinds of fractured groups. He said people live not only in the present, in their own generation, but also through their history, through past generations as well. Although black people may said to be haunted by the past of slavery, he has seen the successes of change in groups as varied as gangs to diplomats. There is much to be passed on that is positive and helpful.
Cockfield, the law student, asked her peers to look at civil rights history and what defines citizenship for them. Although some young people are not paying attention, "as if history came to an end and civil rights activism happened a long time ago," Cockfield said it is students' mission to exercise their right to protest for what's right. She reminded students that King was responsible for pushing the paradigm shift that enabled young African Americans to enroll at an elite institution like U.Va.
"Because we're at U.Va., it is our mission to take our education and to continue to break down barriers, to have a voice. … My generation needs to make a distinction between political dissent and angry violence," she said.
Most people, even peace activists, don't know that the phrase, "War is not the answer," can be attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., said Tucker, the English professor, who has been involved with the local Center for Peace and Justice. Tucker also pointed out that the center's popular slogan, "If you want peace, work for justice," worked the opposite way for King, who worked for justice and then spoke out for peace.
Tucker recalled King saying that we are at the moment when our own lives are on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. "We all live with our lives on the line, whether we know it or not," Tucker said.
People owe it to King's memory to study the trajectory of his life, from civil rights to pacifist nonviolence to intervention in the struggle, and to work for peace, he said.
Fatton, the politics professor, said following the path of Martin Luther King today leads to speaking out about the Iraq war.
Much has changed in the world — "the specter of communism has now been replaced by the omnipresent fears of terrorism," for example. And some upper-class minorities have "made it," Fatton said. "The rise of Barack Obama symbolizes the gains made by Martin Luther King and his generation."
Although much has changed in the world, the old situation still haunts us – gross inequalities in opportunity and in wealth, Fatton said. Opposing another war generates the same strong feelings of disloyalty that King mentioned when he opposed the Vietnam War.
"The failure to speak truth to power has led to an acceptance of torture, the erosion of civil liberties, and the killing and bombing of thousands of innocent victims. … The failure to speak truth to power undermines the meaning of citizenship in a democracy. It destroys decency. It also means most elected officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, have continued to be profligate when it comes to funding military ventures abroad, but have consistently lacked the courage to find the required resources for health care, education and assisting the poor."
Fatton mentioned another similarity, that "the war in Iraq continues to be fought predominantly by the less fortunate of society and by a disproportionate number of minorities."
"In fact, despite Dr. King's admonition, I am afraid that if we truly wish to oppose wars, to stop them, we must continue to study them. We need to understand and to uncover the forces unleashing those wars.
"The war in Iraq is a war of empire," Fatton said, an idea he charged was conceived by the same men who worked under the previous President Bush. They came up with strategies in the 1990s, so the Iraq war was not really a response to the tragedy of 9-11, but part of a strategy of global dominance.
In their remarks, the panelists sought to fulfull King's statement, "the truth must be told." Fatton urged the audience "to embrace King's hopes and follow his lead … to break the betrayal of silence."
The program also was co-sponsored by the Office of African-American Affairs, the University Library's multicultural issues committee, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and the Law School's Center for the Study of Race and Law.