RESCUED FROM THE FILES: LETTER TO MARTIN LUTHER KING FROM ON DOWN THE LINE

[As you can see by the date, I wrote this piece 21 years ago while teaching an interim class at Wofford College called “Integration & the Movies.” As a final project I asked my students– 12 black and 12 white– to write letters either to  ML King or Malcolm X from “on down the line” as to how their visions turned out. I did the assignment and this is what turned out for me. We are even further “down the line” now and it’s interesting to consider this in terms of this particular MLK Day. Enjoy JL]

2/2/91

Dear Martin,

May I call you Martin? I feel I know you so well, and I would take it as an honor if I could use your first name as so many of your supporters did in the Civil Rights movement back in the 60s. I am a white Southern man, living and teaching in a middle-sized Southern town. We have one special connection to you here; your father is said to have preached here at a black Baptist church before you were born. I drive right past it on my way to work. I like to imagine you, maybe as a teenager, visiting here with your father to see old friends, walking the street in front of the church, the social revolution of mid-century already articulate and sleeping within you.

Martin, it has been twenty-three years since you were murdered in Memphis, and much has happened in those years; I will try and tell you about a few things that I know you would find of the deepest interest, no matter how much they may sadden you. First, you should be aware that your country is at war once again. The war you opposed finally ended in 1975, when the last Americans were pulled out of Saigon. Many feel we “lost” the war in Vietnam, and that defeat seems in some unconscious way to be part of what we are trying to correct in our cultural character in this present conflict. The politicians say, as always, we are fighting for “freedom,” and “liberty,” but most know there are much more banal realities at stake than those lofty ideals.

Why are we fighting? As in Vietnam, nothing is simple. We are told that a man named Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, is a monster, and is only years away from having a nuclear bomb; he has gassed his own people to quell an uprising, and he fought a brutal eight year war with Iran, where we supported him with weapons and funds. Much of America’s foreign policy over the years since you died has followed the old proverb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Maybe there is no doubt, if what we are told is true, that Saddam is a brutal tribal leader who has somehow risen to control the fourth largest army on the face of the planet.

Many are comparing Saddam to Hitler, and many people when you ask them, use that argument to support our country’s actions. I know there can never be another Hitler, Martin, just as there can never be another you. But there is so much trouble in the Middle East. Maybe the Bible you knew so well was right about the Middle East, that the final battle will be fought in sand and heat.

Things have happened so fast. In August of this year, soon after Saddam made peace with Iran, he invaded his neighbor, Kuwait. Now, six months later, with the support of the United Nations, we have half a million troops in the dry, dusty Middle Eastern oil fields. Many in our country wanted to “strangle” Iraq, to tighten an embargo around the country and continue to tighten it until Saddam pulls out of Kuwait. Some said this could be a truly “just” war and that we should not make the mistakes of Vietnam again. With that sort of resolve we began a massive bombardment of Iraq, using conventional weapons to level everything of military importance. We are now three weeks into the bombardment, and the frightening prospect for most Americans is that our troops are poised to enter Kuwait and extract Saddam Hussein’s army. Everyone knows that this action could be bloody and maybe as brutal as anything in the Iran/Iraq war.

Many have taken to the streets already against this war, as if many in our country have lost any resolve that war–no matter how just we might call it–can solve anything in this present age. Some citizens tie yellow ribbons around oak trees in support of our troops, and others hold prayer vigils to call on higher powers. Most ask for peace I’m sure, but what they whisper in their hearts is not known to anyone but God.

I’ve been thinking about you since the bombs began to fall on Baghdad. I’ve imagined that you would probably say we Americans have failed as soldiers of the heart, even though our jets and missiles now rule the skies over the Iraqi desert.

You are still remembered, Martin. It could even be said that you are a hero for many, an icon of sorts now. On the afternoon of the fourteenth of January, I watched your “I had a Dream” speech. The speech was recorded on a video tape that is readily available in almost every town of any size in America. Maybe that would surprise you most of all, how available you and your ideas are to millions of Americans. Anyone, with three dollars, a video tape player for their T.V., and a membership to a video store can spend an evening with “Martin Luther King, Jr.” So on the eve of your birthday (now a national holiday in all but three states) I joined a small gathering of students–almost all black–to view your twenty minute speech delivered in Washington in 1963.

As I’m sure you remember, you delivered your prepared text, then departed toward the end, in the flow of the moment, into one of the greatest, most heart-felt flourishes of rhetoric and feeling that an American leader has ever delivered. You gave us, in the last five minutes of your speech, two metaphors. You talked of non-violence being a “marvelous militancy,” a revolution not of the spleen but of the heart, and then you told us your personal dream: that men and women should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skins.

It was with your “marvelous militancy” that you unquestionably opposed war as a means to bring about peace. On the battlefield of the heart, I believe you would have said, there is only one means to the end called peace. The means is non-violence. Many today believe you were brought down in Memphis by this larger dream of yours, which included not only poor blacks of the Southern United States, but all poor people in the world–even, in your time, our enemy’s poor: the poor of both Vietnams.

So on the fifteenth of January, your birthday, the United States struck Iraq. Maybe history, as it moves along, will note the irony. That evening, a hundred ultra-modern cruise missiles came in low over the desert, hitting targets in Baghdad with what our military is calling “pin-point accuracy.”

Our President, George Bush, addressed the American public shortly after the air strikes began. I could not help but think of your speech, with its fresh perspectives and lively metaphors. President Bush had none of the freshness or power that we have always expected from our heroes; he told us that no “arms would be tied behind our military’s backs.” Earlier, before the war begun, he had talked of the U.S. “kicking some ass” in Kuwait, sounding like the World War II fighter pilot he is. So our president has set the tone for the Nineties; we would meet Saddam’s forceful occupation of Kuwait with our own force, and the cliched wrath of the Old Testament was unleashed again in the Middle East.

In his speech, our president called the fighting in the Middle East, the establishment of “A new world order.” But Martin, no matter what our president said, I believe you were the true prophet of “A new world order.” You believed with your heart in the organized use of non-violence in the face of even the most brutal force. You drew no line in the sand of non-violence. It was heart power all the way. The violent strikes by both Allied and Iraqis are nothing more than the age-old belief in meeting force with force. No real difference, you might say, between the war chariots of old Babylon and an American cruise missile. The brilliant technology arrayed against Iraq is an extension of the brutal “eye for an eye” justice of ancient Sumer. Each missile is a paragraph from Hammurabi’s Code chiseled in stone, not a flourish from an extemporaneous leader’s challenge. “Peaceful ends through peaceful means,” you would say.

You gave a thousand sermons and speeches to define your emerging “world order;” you filled the Birmingham city jails with singing children to sweep forward against the guns and clubs of a Southern racist police force rallied against the movement. It is clear to me now, twenty-two years after your death, that you truly believed in human imagination, heart and soul, not technology and force. And I believe more each day that true change takes your sort of imagination, not engineering, what can be plotted on the command computers of a missile or an F-15.

I guess nothing that I have said would surprise you. Less than a year before you died, you had written, “The stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth. 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, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

What can we do, Martin? What would you do? How can we live creatively in the “world house” with people like Saddam Hussein in the next room? Even if we did create him with our support, with our weapons deals and aid, he lives there now, like an uncle gone bad, stealing the family silver.

One more story that seems of some relevance: the day the war started it snowed in my town, and as I was leaving my office on campus to head home I heard screaming from the fraternity horseshoe. A snow ball fight had escalated into a near-brawl. There were two lines of fraternity boys facing off, screaming horrible things across the line. I wandered closer. Their faces were red; I could see the veins in their necks as they screamed and shook their fists at the opposing lin of fellow students.

My God, Martin, that is how it happens! The hate that can take us to war is as close as our own communities, and it can surface over the simplest things. I couldn’t help but see in the two lines of South Carolina fraternity boys the lines of Mississippi citizens lined up to brutally beat the Freedom riders as they came off the busses in ’61. There was “no good reason” for such hate, but that didn’t stop what happened back then. It seems that all we can do is continue to look into our hearts and act as originally as we see fit. The heart hasn’t changed much in 23 years, Martin. It’s still wide open in many and cold as a foxhole in many others. What kind of “marvelous militancy” will this age give us? I’m counting on you still to help point the way, just as Thoreau and Ghandi helped point the way for you. You left many ageless signs behind–in your books and speeches–and I’m hoping we can follow, leading as you suggested, not with one of the “three giant triplits”–militarism–but with our hearts.

Wishing you peace on the other side,

John Lane

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