I try to meditate and pray at the Martin Luther King Jr. Waterfall in Yerba Buena Gardens as often as possible. This week, I have a goal to do it every day. Like the Memorial on the Mall in Washington, it is infused with eight of his quotes, including several which are rarely cited.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
It is an extraordinary statement of faith which flies in the face of our win-at-all-costs culture and public policy, particularly foreign policy. As Congress considers America’s fifth Middle East war in the past 20 years, it is perhaps this quote which should be featured. It explains why his more famous utterance “I Have a Dream” is still a dream deferred.
What none of the speakers at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington mentioned was what happened almost immediately thereafter — the Vietnam War.
That history should help inform Congress’ decision, particularly the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Like Edwin Starr, King realized that the only friend of war is the undertaker. Americans must realize that two decades of war in the Middle East have not worked; but more importantly have distracted attention and resources from the most important issues of our day.
In comparison to countries which have avoided wars of adventure, our economic and moral position has eroded.
For African-Americans, the same calculation that Dr. King made in the 1960s applies today.
Ever since Crispus Attucks was the first American to die for this country in 1770, war has not benefited African-Americans — with two exceptions–the Civil War and World War II.
The difference between those two wars and other expeditions was that the very survival of the country was at stake. Because of that, our progress was grudgingly acknowledged as critical to the war effort.
In Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long, a change in white sentiment about allowing blacks to carry arms came about because of the mounting death toll and the draft. An Irish ditty opined that the singer would rather have a black man die in battle than himself. The 225,000 U.S. Colored Troops wound up being a difference maker contrary to the prior beliefs of President Abraham Lincoln.
During World War II, the contradiction posed by the Double V campaign of the black press between American segregation and Nazism forced President Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate defense industries and his successor Harry Truman to open up the armed forces.
Every other war was accompanied by a rise in anti-African-American sentiment. The Spanish-American War gave way to Jim Crow. World War I was followed by the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, race riots and lynchings. Vietnam brought on George Wallace and Richard Nixon.
Over the past 20 years, despite key leadership in roles such as national security advisor, Secretary of State and now President, and a consistent 20 percent of those in service being African-American, our economic position has gone backward; our communities are being bankrupted and the unemployment rate is higher than 1963.
America’s wars in the Middle East fail because of the same lack of cultural competency to Arab cultures which is at evidence in African-American communities.
The use of chemical weapons by Syria is an admission of desperation on the part of the regime. Any one who has paid attention for the past five years would realize that the people of Syria are about to change their leadership on their own. The smartest move the United States could make would be to supply millions of gas masks to the Syrian opposition. It would have the same effect that Litwack observed in the Civil War. As Union forces came near, whole plantations of African-Americans disappeared. It made a mockery of Confederates who lauded the loyalty of their slaves. Having effective counter-measures would end the use of chemical weapons.
After two trillion dollars blown up in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, I’d suggest trying the King approach for the next 20 years. Just being on the side of the disinherited, as Dr. Howard Thurman described the masses, might do more than all the smart bombs in the world.
There is a reason that African-Americans in the throes of slavery sang, “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”
To be truly seen in the legacy of his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners Dr. Ralph Bunche, who brought peace to the Middle East; Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama must adapt their tactics.