by Bob Fitrakis
April 3, 2003
The time has come when silence is betrayal of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – exactly one year after, to the day, he delivered his most profound indictment of U.S. militarism. His “Silence is Betrayal” speech, given at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, denounced “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift.”
As half a million dollar missiles fall on the Iraqi people, as the citizens of the United States face a $400 billion deficit, the highest in history, and the yearly defense budget of the U.S. approaches $500 billion approximately half of the military spending on Earth, King’s words remain relevant today.
King, despite his inner search for truth, did not come easily to opposing the politics of the Johnson administration as the Vietnam War raged. King’s great spirit, that seemed to instinctively speak truth to power, feared “the apathy of conformity” in “his own bosom.” King courageously overcame being “mesmerized by uncertainty” and instead, spoke out forcefully.
Dr. King broke the “silence of the night” and found his famously distinct voice, set apart by its universal tone of moral resonance. He looked into the hell-black “darkness that seemed so close around us” and urged people of conscience “to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy’.”
King, like Christ, knew that the Vietnamese people, like the Iraqis, are our brothers and sisters. His speech was an attempt to reach out to dehumanized American foes and “hear their broken cries.”
“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 . . . a true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘this way of settling difference is not just,’” King spoke.
Looking out into the great waves of history, King observed that, “The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursue this self-defeating path of hate.”
King pointed out, then as now, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” There is yet time to draw back from the siege of Baghdad; to say no to the clash of cultures, to end the empty and self-destructive rhetoric of perpetual war in the name of perpetual peace.
If we don’t make that choice, King put it well: “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.”
Bob Fitrakis is a Political Science Professor in the Social and Behavioral Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, and author of The Idea of Democratic Socialism in America and the Decline of the Socialist Party (Garland Publishers 1993). He is the editor of The Free Press, where this article first appeared (www.freepress.org).