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Remembering MLK: A Time to Break the Silence

January 21, 2008

“Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” — Dorothy Day

martin_luther_king_jr.jpgThese words come to mind as I think about the public commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. To my mind this day is perhaps the most important of our secular holidays. King fought against injustices — racism, poverty, war — that manifestly continue to plague us today, leading massive campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience against the powerful and in defense of the weak. His great legacy is a challenge to take up this struggle against injustice.

But official commemorations of King tend to reduce him to a kind of civic cheerleader, exhorting us to do good works, but remaining silent on the ways King challenged us to actively oppose injustice. Consider the President Bush’s holiday proclamation, in which he encourages “all Americans to celebrate his memory by performing acts of kindness through service to others. Let us live out Dr. King’s teachings as we continue to work for the day when the dignity and humanity of every person is respected.”

Service is, of course, a noble thing; it is wonderful that so many people mark the King holiday with good works. But if King’s life teaches us anything, it is that we must also stand courageously against injustice wherever it exists. If we are truly to continue to work for the day when the dignity and humanity of every person is respected, our work will involve clear and passionate dissent from government policies that serve the powerful and oppress the poor.

There is perhaps no issue today where King’s true legacy stands more starkly against the current policies of our government than the war in Iraq. In 1967 King declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam in a powerful speech entitled “A Time to Break Silence.” As U.S. politicians and the public seem to be scurrying away from opposition to the war in the naive belief that the “surge” in military force will somehow end the political and social turmoil unleashed by the destructiveness of war — will somehow just make it all go away — I find it impossible to hear these words as anything other than a prophetic call to begin the painful work of ending the war in Iraq.

And so I mark the King holiday by revisiting this great speech, as relevant and challenging today as it was 40 years ago. Below are excerpts. You can read the complete text here.

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