King's antiwar legacy


WWKD—What would King do? Although UIC history professor Barbara Ransby said she wouldn't purport to know how Martin Luther King Jr. would respond to the war in Iraq, all three panelists at Wednesday evening's MLK Week discussion seemed to have a well-educated hunch. The program, King: War and the Moral Imperative, used the civil-rights leader's April 30, 1967, sermon at New York's Riverside Church as a jumping-off point. In that speech King pronounced his opposition to the Vietnam War—at a time when much of the press and public still "cautiously" favored it, said the first speaker, Chicago theology and history of Christianity professor W. Clark Gilpin, AM’72, PhD’74.

In the sermon King explained how his nonviolent fight for domestic civil rights had expanded to international affairs. For one, the poverty programs enacted only a few years earlier lost their funding to the war. Also, King saw a disproportionate number of black and poor soldiers dying in Vietnam. Third, Gilpin paraphrased, the war "created a disastrous inconsistency in the moral claims of the nation."

As King noted in his sermon, when he tried to tell "angry young men" in urban ghettos "that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems" and that "social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action," they'd retort: "So what about Vietnam?" There the United States used violence to solve its problems. "Their questions hit home," King said, "and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."

Later in the sermon King discussed South Asia—a section that Gilpin "reread in terms of our current war in Iraq." To make the point, Gilpin quoted: "There's something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, 'Be nonviolent toward [Selma, Alabama, Sheriff] Jim Clark,' but will curse and damn you when you say, 'Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children.'"

Gilpin also saw modern parallels to King's statement: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Parallels also struck theology professor Dwight Hopkins, who focused on King's spiritual teachings. After his sermon King was "instructed that the black church should stick to domestic issues," Hopkins said, yet King "believed that failure to speak out would be a prime instance when silence meant betrayal to his interpretation of the Gospel of Christ." The "same forces that benefitted from the white power structure domestically" were the ones that "damaged people of color abroad and stole their oil."

Ransby spoke last, decrying recent incidents such as Abu Ghraib and Haditha and noting that King "advocated nonviolence for the poor but also for the president, the most powerful among us." During the "unjust" war in Iraq, she said, "King's words should be ringing loudly in our ears. He offered a powerful moral challenge: 'Somehow the madness must cease.'"

About 40 community members attended the panel in Swift Hall's third-floor lecture hall, one of several events held this week to honor King. On Monday NAACP chair Julian Bond will give a keynote address at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.


Photos: Hopkins and Ransby listen to Gilpin at the podium (top); The crowd considers the arguments (bottom).

Photos by Dan Dry

January 11, 2007