Now is the Time to Heed MLK's Warning about the Giant Triplets of InjusticeRoundup
tags: Martin Luther King Jr., Miltarism
Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.
I recently participated in a commemoration of Martin Luther King’s address “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence,” originally delivered on April 2, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church. King used the occasion to announce his opposition to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Although a long time coming in the eyes of some in the antiwar movement, his decision was one for which he was roundly criticized, even by supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. He was straying out of his prescribed lane, they charged, and needed to get back where he belonged.
This year’s 55th anniversary event, also held in Riverside Church’s magnificent sanctuary, featured inspiring Christian music and a thoughtful discussion of King’s remarks. Most powerful of all, however, was a public reading of the address itself. “Beyond Vietnam” contains many famously moving passages. King, for example, cited “the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools” and would not allow them to live “on the same block in Chicago.” And he reflected on the incongruity of young Black men being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
For me, at least, what that commemorative moment brought into sharp focus was his lacerating critique of American freedom. And there, to my mind, lies its lasting value.
Between theory and practice — between the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, on the one hand, and the pervasive presence of what King labeled the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism on the other — there still looms, even in our own day, a massive gap. His address eloquently reflected on that gap, which, with the passage of time, has not appreciably narrowed.
King was neither the first nor the last observer to note the debased and shoddy nature of American-style freedom as actually practiced. Nor was he unique in pointing out the hypocrisy pervading our politics. Yet because of the moral heights to which he had ascended, his critique had a particular bite.
In 2022, we have arrived at a moment, however belatedly and reluctantly, when most (though by no means all) Americans at least acknowledge that racism forms an ugly thread that runs through our nation’s history, mocking our professed devotion to liberty and equality for all. Of course, acknowledgment alone hardly entails remedy. At best, it makes remedies plausible. At worst, it offers an excuse for inaction, as if merely confessing to sin suffices to expunge it.
The attention given to racism of late has had exactly that unintended effect — relieving Americans of any obligation even to acknowledge the insidious implications of materialism and militarism. In that sense, even now, two of King’s giant triplets barely qualify for lip-service. In the political sphere, they are either ignored or, at best, treated as afterthoughts.
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