By Tim Wolcott
Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I take strength in contemplating the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Particularly near the end of his life, M.L.K. represented the pinnacle of fortitude, and fortitude is what all peace makers need on a daily basis.
Only days before his assassination, Dr. King in his speech of solidarity to striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee acknowledged the credibility of the current threats on his life. However, he remained selflessly undaunted and inspired the assembled to “stand up straight” in resistance to injustice and violence. M.L.K. was in Memphis to encourage garbage workers to be assertive and proud to wear the tee shirts stenciled with “I am a man” (who deserves a living wage and basic benefits). “When a man’s back is straight, another man cannot ride you.” His words resonated with the crowd then and with me today. Indeed, the Civil Rights Movement that Martin Luther King helped lead rallied against economic injustice, militarism, consumerism as well as racial segregation. Almost five decades have passed since that speech, but the message remains topical. The imperative to “stand up straight” against racism, militarism and capitalistic exploitation is as timely now as it was then.
Oh, if it were only that easy. It is a daily struggle. The fortitude needed to sustain active resistance requires a daily dose of love.
It may seem for many that it was more of a battle in Rev. King’s day. People were being tortured and murdered trying to help ‘Negro’ people register to vote. Racism was overt then and often sanctioned by local police. Militarism was strong then too (the Vietnam War raged), but it was sanitized. The war was being waged supposedly for ‘national defense’ while well cloaked in propaganda about the ‘liberation of people’. The capitalistic motive for our involvement (the acquisition of Southeast Asia’s natural resources) was absent from the daily news of death, destruction and “honor to serve”.
Currently racism is mostly covert with non-white civil and military leaders helping to belie the fact that economic and social injustice coupled with endless wars still undermine the establishment of the real democracy championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. Racism continues to pervade our culture such that we still need to be reminded from tee shirts that “Black lives matter”.
Militarism sanctioned by major media, defense contractor-directed politicians, and even educational institutions (both at the secondary level as well as collegiate level) perpetuate this situation. Our high schools are required by federal law to supply recruiting information for our armed services as well as a needed space (usually across from the school cafeterias) in order to continue receiving federal funding. Many colleges and universities are prioritizing federal grant applications and faculty positions that create defense-related products and programs.
As an educator and peace activist I found myself resisting school recruitment alone and often being marginalized by colleagues for my controversial points of view. Most teachers don’t like to ‘rock the boat’, but I contend that neither did the garbage workers in M.L.K.’s day or the fast food workers in present time. Furthermore, I believe most of the vulnerable youth entering into military service in our country would rather invest time in their communities growing the local economy than spend time abroad waging wars that have ‘no end in sight’.
It’s not easy teaching peace. It’s difficult to find the time to rally against the corporatization of our schools, prisons and the militarism of our culture. It’s a challenge finding the time, energy and resources to support peace activities in school, at home and in our communities. Teaching peace, working for justice, and resisting the distractions of violence and commercialization of our lives require healthy doses of faith, love and solidarity. Try hard to join a peace group, participate in a social justice action or just read a loving story to a child.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had many opportunities to visit grand homes of our society’s elite leaders. He often chose instead to brave the dogs or hoses and/or to deliver an encouraging speech to people needing a little hope and love. Dr. King knew the change he wanted was to come from the ‘little people’ in the streets who are willing to risk it all for the dream of a better tomorrow.
For more on how to wage peace, click on teachpeacenow.org or bcpeaceaction.org