As President Obama prepares to strike Syria, he should revisit what King concluded about Vietnam in his last years:
“I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road which can lead to national disaster...
“Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war, we must spread the propaganda of peace. We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach and preach, until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.”
By 1967, Dr. King was persuaded that ending the war in Vietnam was part of his mission; a disproportionate number of the young men fighting and dying there were African-American. He began to take part in anti-war protests.
I witnessed an attempt to dissuade him. In a phone call to Dr. King, Norman Cousins argued that he would be associating himself with unsavory radical groups in a planned march. Cousins was the eloquent Saturday Review editor who always kept open his backdoor access to the White House while denouncing the war, a Cause Celebrity whose celebrity often took priority over the cause. I could not hear Dr. King’s response, but it was clearly a polite suggestion that Cousins get lost.
Martin Luther King led that march, as he did so many others. In photographs, he can be seen side by side with Dr. Benjamin Spock, who had been driven from the leadership of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy for associating with “disreputable” antiwar groups. Dr. King and Dr. Spock, as unalike as people can be in many ways, had one thing in common: They were not concerned about their reputations. The Cause always came first.
President Obama is ready to strike Syria, but he should recall that, beyond what was said at the Lincoln Memorial today, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for both racial justice and non-violence. It should not be so easy to separate those two ideals as another attack in the Middle East would.