In his recent interview in "MLK: Call to Conscience," Dr. Cornel West warned against what he called the "Santa Clausification" of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He called it "one of the ways in which you defang and domesticate people who are on fire for justice." I think it's fair to say we're all a little guilty of doing just that.
In April of 1967, King delivered an unpopular speech at Riverside Church in New York titled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." He did so without the blessing of many of his civil rights colleagues, and its delivery permanently severed his successful relationship with the Johnson administration. King could no longer call for nonviolence as the sole means of negotiating and creating the Great Society, while remaining silent on the use of extreme violence and countless civilian deaths in an unjust war against an impoverished people on the other side of the globe.
In what was to become the final year of his life, King began to address injustice in the global community. It began with this critique of the war in Vietnam and filtered through the larger lens of oppression, colonialism, rampant capitalism and resource wars under the guise of "protection." The consequence of King's speech was an increased isolation and the loss of many previous allies who felt that his role as leader had run its course. No doubt he suffered for that act of conscience: Exactly one year to the date of this address, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
King's speech was profound in that it recognized America's role in perpetuating colonialism under the French in Vietnam, the installation of a puppet dictator and the forgoing of infrastructure and programs at home to divert money into the pockets of the military profiteers. I struggle some days to see what we have learned from this lesson 46 years later.
In the speech, King said "Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, 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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
To stand up and point out that the emperor wears no clothes is to make an enormous sacrifice in a society that places profit over humanity as a matter of course.
And so, I'd like to take a minute today to thank those people among us who are on fire for justice. Those who speak out against war, colonialism, poverty, oppression, apartheid and environmental destruction. I'd like to thank those who deliver hugely unpopular speeches, pointing out that preschool children poisoned by industrial waste in China or are killed by drone strike in Pakistan are no less entitled to life than preschool children in Spokane, West Virginia, or your very own home. I want to thank those who follow their conscience after careful reflection and earnest thought, and see that we are the global community and must speak out for all our brothers and sisters, and all of our children. I want to thank those who take the long view, and not the comfortable, momentary, solution. I want to thank those who make choices that may sacrifice comfort, friends and family ties to follow their conscience.
Some days seem colder than others to me, and some days it feels like my fire is dying down entirely. You light the way, you warm me up, you become the beacon for me. You're everywhere. Keep going.
Janet Marino is executive director of the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center. For information on the center go online to whatcompjc.org.
MARCH MARKS HOLIDAY
Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be marked by a poverty action march, sponsored by Whatcom Volunteer Center, beginning at 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 21, at Bellingham High School, 2020 Cornwall Ave., on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The day begins with a kickoff breakfast at 10 a.m. at the school. Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community Development, will be guest speaker. Donations of essential needs for area agencies will be accepted until 1 p.m.