Martin Luther King and the War in Afghanistan

The national observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is just around the corner, so we here atRACblog are taking some time to reflect on the life and legacy Dr. King and how it relates to the issues that confront us today.  While considerable time should and will be dedicated to Dr. King’s struggles for civil rights, economic justice and equality, today I want to take a moment to discuss a lesser-known aspect of Dr. King’s career.

On April 4, 1967, a year before he died, Martin Luther King gave his now famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York City. There he addressed a group called Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam and made his most passionate anti-war statements.  In his speech Dr. King outlined the connections between the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement, how the struggle for one led him to support the other, and how “the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.”

Dr. King denounced the damage being done by the war both abroad and at home. He discussed how American military action was destroying lives and communities across Vietnam as well as damaging our reputation around the world. He decried the suffering of American service men and women as unnecessary, and recognized the disproportionate number of those who came from the Black community. Finally he denounced the fact that the war effort had distracted attention and resources away from solving the dire crises America faced at home.

This MLK Day is the 12th in a row that the United States has been at war. With troops on the ground in Afghanistan, a continued presence in Iraq and spreading military operations across the Middle East, perhaps it is time to grapple again with the message of the Riverside Speech: How is this war helping or hurting human beings around the world? How is it affecting America’s image and standing? How do we address the suffering, and the inequality of service, by our service men and women? And how do we understand the connection between our military efforts and our struggles for social change, justice and equality at home?

While the President announced last week that the United States would be decreasing its military presence in Afghanistan as early as this spring and seeking a complete end to the war in 2014, questions remain about the future of American involvement in the region. Vigilance will be necessary to ensure that the war in Afghanistan, and our involvement across the region, draws down in a quick and just manner. Above all, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that silence in the face of these great struggles was all-too dangerous. So as this drawdown commences and our military engagements abroad continue, we must, as Dr. King was, be “moved to break the betrayal of [our] own silences and to speak from the burnings of [our] own heart[s].”


Image courtesy of The Riverside Church