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What Would Dr. King Do: The New Movement Against War And Racism

What would Dr. King do about war, racism, poverty and immigration?

Pancho McFarland

In Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final months he vehemently denounced the U.S. war on Vietnam and spoke often about labor issues which crossed racial and ethnic divisions. Dr. King understood that violence meted out on the people of Vietnam grew from the same sources as assaults on the working classes and racial violence in the U.S. Capitalist greed, colonial desire, and Western/European racism coalesced to form an elite ethic of violence.

Dr. King witnessed the consequences of this violent ethic and because of his “commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ” he wrote, spoke and organized against the war on the Vietnamese. Describing the consequences of U.S. imperial violence in a late 1967 sermon (reprinted as “The Trumpet of Conscience” in A Testament of Hope), Dr. King argues:

“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demoniacal destructive suction tube. And so I was increasingly compelled to see the war not only as a moral outrage but also as an enemy of the poor, and to attack it as such….It [the war] was sending their [the poor] sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die and in extraordinarily higher proportions relative to the rest of the population.”

Given this, how do we answer the question: What would King do (WWKD) in this current political economic environment? Dr. King would lead and/or otherwise help organize the anti-war, immigrant rights, and criminal justice reform movements. An analysis of the current political economic state of the U.S. reveals tremendous similarities to the Vietnam era.

The Arabs/Muslims of this new war on terrorism replace the Vietnamese who replaced the Japanese who replaced the Chinese as the Yellow Peril. Since the late 19th century we have witnessed a continuous dehumanization and fear of Asians what the scholar Edward Said defined as 'Orientalism' in his 1978 book of that name. Chinese workers and their families bore the brunt of white U.S. hatred between 1850 and the early 1900s. Private and public violence, local discriminatory laws and federal immigration policy punished Chinese in the Western U.S. The Japanese war with the U.S. over prominence in the Pacific led to a belief that the Japanese were bloodthirsty killers who didn’t care about life (witness the ‘kamikaze’). The nearly one hundred years of hatred towards Asians led also to the firebombings of most major Japanese cities (see the film, Fog of War, for graphic details from Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under President Lyndon Johnson) and, of course, the inhumane dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same hatred of ‘yellow’ people justified U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Stories of Vietnamese ruthlessness abound in the 1960s and 1970s. “They don’t value life,” the stories said. “They strap bombs to babies,” I heard from some in my parents’ generation. These myths hid My Lai and napalm.

To this attack on Vietnamese people, Dr. King said:

“I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know them and to hear their broken cries.”

Later in the sermon, Dr. King added:

“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when they help us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves…if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

Over the last thirty years we have witnessed a steady stream of ideas, stories and visual representations of the Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern terrorist. See the virtual cottage industry of Hollywood action films starring Schwarznegger or Chuck Norris among others. The suicide bomber and the Al Qaeda member remind of us of how Asians/Easterners/Orientals don’t value life. The terrorist is the new kamikaze and/or cutthroat Vietcong. “They only understand violence,” agree the hawkish elite in the U.S. “They hate us. Their religion tells them to destroy us,” many in my generation argue. The new racism convinces us that those people, their religion, their societies, are somehow less. Under the new racism, are Middle Easterners even three-fifths of a human being? The indiscriminate use of 500 lb. bombs, uranium-laced radioactive artillery, and all-out attacks on cities like Fallujah and Basra suggest that the answer is ‘no.’ There is no attempt to know them as human or “hear their broken cries.”

What other parallels do we see between the current climate and that which Dr. King spoke against? In the 1960s the repressive and hyperviolent imperial endeavors of U.S. elites were matched by equally repressive domestic policies. Decades of Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Native American/American Indian attempts to overcome racism, change U.S. society, and make decent lives for their children were met with police violence, FBI surveillance, and mass incarceration. People of color paid a disproportionate price for U.S. imperial greed. The prosperity many found in the 1950s failed to reach most people of color. The fiscal priorities of the U.S. government were less focused on a war on poverty than on war. The military industrial complex that solidified after World War II soaked up most of our taxes while governments abandoned inner cities where the majority of people of color now lived. The military industrial complex which sucked dry the public coffers created the need for a prison industrial complex. Decreasing opportunities in cities combined with aggressive policing of people of color, especially militant activists, created an incarceration boom. Increasingly, young people of color could see only two choices: 1) creative entrepreneurship (illegal behaviors), or 2) fight. Neither choice boded well. Finding one’s way through creative entrepreneurship usually ended with one doing prison time. Fighting in a militant organization got you killed or incarcerated. And fighting in Vietnam for the U.S. government got you killed or maimed.

Things were grim for people of color and our country, generally. The hopes of post-WWII prosperity and civil rights quickly turned to frustration and anger in the mid-1960s. Dr. King saw this. King’s vast knowledge of history and political science offered him insight into that historical moment. He concluded a ‘tempest of evil’ including imperialism, violence and racism had brought our country to a crossroads. We had to choose between a morality based on peace and love or one based on violence and hate. Four decades later it is clear that our country has chosen the latter.

Or have we? If we have, is it too late to reverse course? National polls report that much of the U.S. population disagrees with the war on Iraq. In the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey taken between April 7 and April 16, 2006 41% of the population polled believed Iraq would turn into another Vietnam. Sixty-four percent of those polled in the 4/7-4/9 USA Today/Gallup Poll disagreed with the way the President is handling the war. 57% believed the U.S. made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. A December poll by shows that most U.S. citizens (58%) want the U.S. military to leave Iraq within two years. These poll numbers do not tell us why most now reject the war on Iraq and it is less than convincing in terms of arguing that we are on a path of peace, love and justice in the U.S. They do suggest dissatisfaction with the current political economic climate we find ourselves in. This dissatisfaction is a necessary prerequisite to a mass movement. In addition, the recent mobilizations against the war, for immigrants’ rights, against poverty, and ongoing work for peace and global cooperation give hope that a morality of love (agape) is gaining momentum in our country.

In “An Experiment in Love” King defines agape as “understanding, redeeming good will for all men…It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor…agape makes no distinction between friends and enemy.” The morality required to set us (the U.S.) on the path to peace and justice requires that we love our enemy as we love ourselves. The love is unconditional. It doesn’t require that you adopt ‘democracy’ or capitalism, our God or our cosmology. It doesn’t require that you hold U.S. citizenship or have the same skin color. Describing agape further Dr. King writes, “Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community…in the final analysis, agape means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers.”

So, what would King do about the labor and immigration situation in the contemporary U.S.? Recall that Dr. King died in Memphis while on a mission in support of striking workers. Would Dr. King join the Crispus Attucks Brigade (an African American anti-immigrant militia) or the Minutemen and patrol the Mexico-U.S. border terrorizing Mexican workers? Or would Dr. King join the millions who have marched, walked-out and otherwise demonstrated on behalf of immigrant workers?

Dr. King would likely see immigrant workers as brothers and sisters deserving agape including support for the right to live decent lives with liberty, dignity and the pursuit of happiness. The representations of immigrant workers as thieving (jobs, welfare, educational resources), drugdealing (the border crossing drug smuggler), criminals frame the debate. The discourse on ‘illegal aliens’ scapegoats immigrants and locates the cause of the economic troubles of our country in foreign countries and peoples. The criminal collusion, warmongering and inhumane search for profit of the power elite (the heads of government, business and the military) who take our public resources and our human resources (our children and relatives) ruins our economy as it ruins our environment. And still we persecute the least powerful in our country for the sins of the most powerful. Recognizing this Christians might remind the powerful about how it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.

A Dr. King-type analysis would undoubtedly link the current war on Iraq to the decreasing opportunities for working people. He would note how the military-industrial complex and oil industry has expanded at the same time that fewer monies are going to improve the lives of the poor. He would see this war as an “enemy of the poor.” He would likely go to the website for the National Priorities Project -- Cost of War ( and find that the $360 billion spent on the war could have been used to hire 6.2 million teachers, provide 17 million students with four-year college scholarships, insure 213 million children, build 3 million homes or fund global anti-hunger efforts for 11 years (as of January 2007). Dr. King would have seen the sad irony of using hundreds of billions of dollars to destroy our Iraqi brethren’s homes while so many in the Gulf Coast are without homes. As Vietnam sucked funds from the War on Poverty effectively killing it before it matured, so, too, the costliest war in history, Iraq 2003-2007, ruins our economy. Since the War on Terror began working people, citizen and non-citizen, find fewer jobs for less pay and more repression at the hands of the state. We are watched, investigated, spied upon. Some are rounded up, sent away and disappeared. Incarceration continues at its record pace.

What would Dr. King do about the criminal injustice system? He would likely agree with people like Angela Davis and Christian Parenti who have examined our incarceration nation. Davis finds a prison-industrial complex at work. In her recent work, Davis connects the development of the prison system to the same ethic of greed, colonialism and hatred that we witnessed in the Vietnam era. The current globalized, neoliberal version of capitalism costs working people jobs, income, security and life. Manufacturing and other good working class jobs have moved overseas and south to Latin America. The conservative principle of economic austerity means that schools, job training centers, health clinics, and affordable houses do not get built. Little government means spending less on domestic needs. Privatization means the law of the jungle, sink or swim. Yet, the government has somehow found the funds to spend hundreds of billions on foreign imperial projects and domestic repression. While most industries contract, prisons and prison-related industries expand.

The expanding prison system is the last safety net for a society at war with itself. The anger, discontent and hunger that millions of the poor and working class feel is exploding. The prison system puts them in cages and scoops up the young before they have a chance to rebel. Davis points out that after welfare (not the hundreds of millions given to corporations, but the hundreds given to poor mothers) was dismantled in 1996, incarceration rates for women increased dramatically. The low monthly payments, food vouchers, and government goods and services issued to poor women to help them get back on their feet and care for their families quickly dried up. Women were forced to find other forms of income.

The war costs the poor. As Dr. King wrote, “America would [will] never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor” as long as war, violence and greed are the priorities. Agape can not flourish in an ethic of greed and racism. We will never heal our economy and our culture if we continue to see dark skinned people as other, as problem, or as enemy. Brown-skinned immigrants, Muslims and inner-city dwellers shoulder the burden of a society that has turned away from agape and community building. A Christian ethic of loving thy neighbor as one loves oneself would reject war, violence and racism and would build a new society based on agape. We know Dr. King’s theology from his many speeches and writings. We know that he opposed violence, greed, war and racism. He opposed hate in its many manifestations. He offered an ethic of Christian love based on Christ’s life and a belief in agape. We know, too, that he would have worked hard to end the war on Iraq, end poverty and end racism.

Bad SubjectPancho McFarland is an assistant professor of sociology at Chicago State University, a father, activist and resident of South Chicago.

Copyright © Copyright Louis "Pancho" McFarland. Immigration image copyright Reuters, 2006. Civil rights protest image copyright by The History Cooperative.. All rights reserved.