Position Statements
King and the Question of War, Peace and Justice:
Issues of Life and Death, Justice and Peace

Maulana Karenga

It is the teaching of our ancestors that "to do that which is of value is for eternity. A person called forth by his work does not die, for his name is raised and remembered because of it" (The Husia). So are the eternal work and name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And as we raise and remember his name and work this month, let us reflect on his meaning to us and the world and ask ourselves how can we honor his legacy by embracing the lessons of his life and work. Clearly, we must not allow others to shape Dr. King in their own image and interest, softening and subverting his message and meaning to accommodate the interest of the established order. Nor must we confuse Rodney King's question "can't we all just get along" with Dr. King's call to build the just and good society and the good and sustainable world we all want and deserve to live in. For Mr. King's question seems to suggest that the solution is the simple change of sentiment. But Dr. King's call requires that we realize, as he taught, that "human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable" and that "every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle."
Certainly no issue which confronts us now looms larger than the presidential preaching and promising of war, his arrogant assumption of the right to wage preemptive wars of aggression against any country deemed a threat, to violently overthrow governments, to assassinate leaders and citizens of other nations designated as enemies of his interests, to suspend and dismiss constitutional rights and protections under the camouflage of national security, and to cultivate through fear a patriotism of raised flags, lowered vision, controlled conversation and indictable dissent. Clearly, Dr. King's life lessons and teachings on war, peace and justice offer us insight and encouragement in addressing this issue in concrete, moral and meaningful ways. For as he says, during the Vietnam War, "we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us."
King was clearly against war and states "this way of settling difference is not just." In fact, he says, war "cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love." He is especially critical of unjust wars against weaker and vulnerable peoples as evidenced in his opposition to the Vietnam War. Although an ardent advocate of peace, Dr. King also realized that peace and security for some cannot come at the expense of war and insecurity for others. Peace and justice, like freedom and security, are inseparably linked. Without justice for the peoples of the world, there can be no peace for the world and without freedom for the peoples of the world there can be no security in the world. Indeed, King says "True peace is not simply the absence of tension; it's the presence of justice." And he says, "oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself."
For King the evil of war is rooted in the devastation and ruin it wreaks on human life - the magnitude and moral monstrousness of the physical, psychological, cultural and spiritual destruction and deformation it leaves in its wake. Thus, he argues that an indispensable step in opposing war and securing peace and good will among the peoples of the world is the "affirmation of the sacredness of all human life." This position reaffirms the ancient African ethical teaching that all humans are bearers of dignity and divinity, equally worthy of the gift and promise of human life. This means that all hierarchies of race, class, gender, religion and nation that exalt a person or a people over others and make them more worthy of life or dignity, freedom, justice, peace and other goods of life are immoral and indefensible. Thus, the Native American, the African, the Latino and the Asian are no less worthy of life and the goods of life than the European. And the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are as worthy of life, freedom, dignity, security and justice as those of the USA and Israel. Therefore, a selective morality that mourns loss of white life and denies or dismisses the savage and sustained destruction of the lives of peoples and persons of color is vilely hypocritical at best and at worst criminally complicit. For as King taught "to ignore evil is to become an accomplice in it."
King offers his most complete critique of the Vietnam War and by extension all unjust war and ultimately war itself in his historic address "A Time to Break Silence." It is given on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York exactly a year before the month and day of his martyrdom. King begins by embracing and reaffirming the fundamental principle that in the face of wrong, injustice and evil, "a time comes when silence is betrayal." And he states silence in the face of the unjust war in Vietnam was such a case of betrayal. Such silence is, of course, a betrayal of our highest moral principles and even more so of the victims who suffer the grievous injury and devastation of war. Surely, the proposed unjust war against Iraq confronts us with the moral urgency to oppose it as we did the Vietnam War. King tells us that he realizes how difficult it is to "assume the task of opposing (one's) government policy, especially in times of war" and also how difficult it is to move beyond "the apathy of conformist thought." Indeed, he says speaking up for peace and justice in such times is "a vocation of agony, but we must speak." And he praises those clergy and moral leaders who had begun "to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based on the mandates of conscience and the reading of history."
If we love peace and value justice, King tells us, "we cannot remain silent as our nation engages in one of history's most cruel and senseless wars. During these days of human travail we must encourage creative dissenters." And he stresses that "we need them because the thunder of their fearless voices will be the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and the clamor of war hysteria."
King also tells us that we must not only speak up, but also step forward and mobilize and organize the masses of people. "Those of us who love peace," he says, "must organize as effectively as the war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war we must spread the propaganda of peace."" We must, then, mobilize, organize, "demonstrate, teach and preach, until the very foundations of our nation is shaken" and we "lift this nation we love to a higher destiny, a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness." And we must act immediately, he says, for "we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now."
The urgency of now calls on persons of conscience and good will to act in ways that reaffirm and protect the dignity and rights of the human person, especially their right to life, freedom and justice. Therefore, King says, "When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice."
King lists several reasons for his opposition to the war in Vietnam which have remarkable relevance for opposition to the threatened war on Iraq. First, he notes it divert valuable resources from the ongoing struggle to provide for the poor and needy. For it draws away resources of "men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube." Thus, he says, he "was increasingly compelled to see war as an enemy of the poor and attack it as such." Moreover, he says that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Dr. King's widow and co-worker, Ms. Coretta Scott King, reaffirmed her husband's vision and concern in a recent speech against the proposed war. She urges us to avoid a war against Iraq, to resist "trading blood for oil and develop alternative energy sources," and to refrain from engaging in a destructive campaign of violence which can only "increase anti-American sentiment" and acts, and "drain as much as 200 billion taxpayer dollars which should be invested in human development here in America."
Secondly, King opposed the war because of the injustice of sending African Americans "to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population." This injustice was heightened by the "cruel irony" that they are sent to kill and die for a country that did not grant them equal rights and opportunity. Segregated and unequal in the USA, they are sent overseas and become linked in "brutal solidarity" of burning, bombing and killing others. And the need of the country, as now, to join together to build a good and just society becomes a low concern or a missing item on the social agenda. In addition, King argued he could not remain silent about the country's use of "massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about changes it wanted," while teaching African Americans in rebellion in the ghettos that "social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action." He said he realized through questioning by the youth that "I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghetto without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government."
Furthermore, Dr. King says he was compelled to oppose the war because of his concern for and "commitment to the life and health of America." He believed that the moral self-conception and very soul of U.S. society was damaged and in mortal danger by its brutal and unjust treatment of peoples of color, the poor and the vulnerable in the U.S. and around the world. And he argued that, America's soul "can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over." Thus, he maintained that those "working for the health of our land" must lead it "down the path of protest and dissent," challenging it to live up to its highest ethical standards. King felt also that his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Peace placed another burden of responsibility on him, "a commission to work harder than (he) ever had before (for) 'the brotherhood of man'." It is, he reasons, "a calling which takes me beyond national allegiance." Moreover, he notes that peace and brotherhood are unquestionable pillars in the moral understanding of his mission as a minister. For he saw the church and religious institutions as morally obligated to take the initiative in the ongoing struggle to create a just and good society and good and sustainable world. And for him the struggle against war and war mongering is central to this mission.
Finally, Dr. King tells us that if he were to sum up his opposition to the injustice and devastation of that unjust war, it would be because of his sense of interrelatedness with the Divine and other humans and "the vocation of sonship (of God) and brotherhood (of humankind)" this gives him. Here he reaffirms the shared status of humans as equal bearers of dignity and divinity and their worthiness of the goods of life in equal measure, especially the good of lives of dignity and decency, freedom, justice, peace and security. He goes on to say that he believes it is "the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and position." Within this expansive ethical understanding of our interrelatedness, in what he calls "a web of interdependence," he and thus, we are called to stand up and speak in the interests of humanity as a whole. Thus, not only are we to speak for the welfare of our country and its people, but especially are we "called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless; for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers (and sisters)."
For ourselves, for history and humanity, then, let us each stand up and step forward with Dr. King and dare to say with him in word and action: "Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and a brother to the suffering poor in (the midst of war). I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying a double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption (overseas). I speak as a citizen of the world, for a world as it stands aghast at the path we've 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."

Dr. Maulana Karenga is professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach; chair of The Organization Us and the National Association of Kawaida Organizations (NAKO). creator of Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba; and author of Introduction to Black Studies. For current information on Kwanzaa see: www.OfficialKwanzaaWebsite.org and for information on The Organization Us see: www.Us-Organization.org.