Monday, April 16, 2007

Dr. Marable: Beyond Vietnam to the madness of Iraq

by Dr. Manning Marable

Beyond Vietnam to the madness of IraqApril 16, 2007On April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his eloquent yet controversial address, “Beyond Vietnam,” at New York City’s Riverside Church. In his sermon, Dr. King announced his moral and political reasons for opposing the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam. “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight,” King began, “because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” King noted that the presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in southeast Asia had only led to the deaths of thousands of innocent victims, and had cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” King observed. It was impossible for the administration of then-President Lyndon Johnson to carry out his “Great Society” social programs, or his “War on Poverty,” when billions of dollars were being reallocated to destroy Vietnamese villages, towns and homes. As journalist Bob Herbert recently noted, King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address “unleashed a hurricane of criticism.” Both the NAACP and black leaders such as Bayard Rustin sharply criticized King for “stepping out of his perceived area of expertise, civil rights, to raise his voice against the evil of the war.” The New York Times joined these critics, proclaiming in an editorial headline, “Dr. King’s Error.” On April 1 this year, hundreds gathered again at Riverside Church, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address, and to link his analysis to the current national debate over U.S. military involvement in Iraq. The event featured keynote addresses by the Reverend Dr. C. T. Vivian, a veteran civil rights leader; the Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, former leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and myself. Also speaking were Mrs. Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of the martyred victim of New York police brutality, Amadou Diallo; the current SCLC President, Charles Steele, Jr.; and the Reverend Dr. Thomas Stiers, Riverside Church’s interim Senior Minister. At one point in the Riverside Church program, scores of young people read sections of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech to the congregation. It was difficult to remember that Martin was talking about the tragedy of Vietnam, rather than the Iraq civil war today. King declared: “I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted … I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.” For Martin, it was not too late for America to halt the madness of militarism and bloody destruction. “If we will make the right choice,” he affirmed, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood and sisterhood.” How would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. respond to the current Iraq War? King would be deeply troubled by the recent opinion polls of Iraqis conducted in January 2007, that coincided with President Bush’s so-called “surge” of U.S. military forces. Over 70 percent of all Iraqis want Americans to leave their country within months, not years. More than 60 percent of Iraqis stated that they agreed with “the killing of U.S. troops.” President Bush insists that he alone, as Commander in Chief, is responsible for conducting war policy for the United States. King would rightly declare that Bush is ignorant of American history, and the powers of Congress as outlined in the U.S. Constitution. During both the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, and the Civil War in 1861-1865, Congress repeatedly used its appropriations powers to restrict the executive branch’s military initiatives. In the 1970s, Congress stopped the appropriation of funds to halt President Gerald Ford’s intervention into Angola’s civil war. Congress barred President Ronald Reagan’s military support for anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua, and cut off President Bill Clinton’s 1994 intervention in Somalia. Two-thirds of all Americans, and over 80 percent of African Americans, want U.S. troops out of Iraq. Every day, the human costs continue to rise. Americans to date have suffered 26,000 killed and wounded soldiers, costing $500 billion that should have been invested in our schools, health care, transportation, and public housing. When U.S. bombs drop on Iraqi towns and cities, they also explode in East Los Angeles, Chicago’s South Side, and Harlem – because these billions of dollars aren’t being spent on human needs. Dr. King would demand that Congress must use its constitutional authority to halt all appropriations for the military presence of U.S. combat forces in Iraq now. In the spirit of Dr. King, we must half the madness of the Iraq War immediately.

Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of Public Affairs, History and African-American Studies, and Director of the Center for Contemporary Black History at Columbia University. “Along the Color Line” appears in over 400 publications internationally, and is available at

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