Some thoughts, as this odd holiday draws to a close... Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 16, 2006, was, as usual, low-key. Government offices, schools and the markets were closed, but most everyone was at work, and as with all holidays, there were the sales at the malls. There aren't many American holidays where folks attend to just what is being noted. Actually there are none, save, perhaps, Christmas Day. Easter is a Sunday so that is a different thing. The Fourth of July brings fireworks, so that's special. Thanksgiving is overeating and watching the Detroit Lions lose another game. All the others are just a day off, for some.
Here in Los Angeles we did have the King Day Parade in the Crenshaw District, kicking off the month-long celebration, in February, of African-American heritage, Black History Month. And our conspicuously Hispanic new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, said this, "I have said that if it were not for Tom Bradley, Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement, I would not be standing here today. A good number of us sitting here - women and people of color - every one of us were blessed by the sacrifices and courage and the indomitable spirit of Rosa Parks and the courage of Martin Luther King."
Something did change in the sixties, and change again on April 4, 1968, when King was assassinated, and the riots followed. Something was getting fixed and then something was broken.
With this Martin Luther King Day we got, from Taylor Branch, his third and final volume of the King years, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68. This was the lead review in the Los Angeles Times Sunday book review. Anne-Marie O'Connor not only comments on the book, but got Taylor Branch on the phone.
Taylor Branch writes in this new book that at the time the war in Vietnam "was foundering" and antiwar sentiment was spreading, and the civil-rights struggle "was taking aim at the last vestiges of American feudalism, challenging segregation and the kind of institutionalized racism that fueled an FBI smear campaign against King." Yep, the FBI was all over him. And Taylor Branch says by phone -
Yes. Some of us remember that, even those of us who were white kids in junior high at the time. And O'Connor quotes Clarence Jones, King's onetime attorney - "Taylor wasn't there. He was an outsider, a white Southerner. He never spoke to Mr. King. Here's this white Southern man gathering this meticulous scholarship, and you know what? He got it right."
Race was, and is, still scary to a lot of people. King's enemies knew that he spoke to a lot of people, and a lot of people agreed with him. He was mesmerizing, because of the timbre of his voice and his words. His voice was like a furnace of optimism, trying to triumph over despair. He defined something that was strong enough to offer hope in the face of suffering.
He was living in a time when people got lynched for almost nothing, and there was no expectation there was going to be justice. Black people were largely invisible. To be a symbol of that hope over despair is an amazing thing.
Well, you look at things long and hard enough, and think about them, and sometimes you see what's really going on.
Branch began of course with Parting the Waters (1988) - a bestseller that won him a Pulitzer Prize. Ten years later was Pillar of Fire, and this new book warps it up. (In his spare time Branch ghost-wrote John Dean's autobiography, and co-wrote that basketball memoir with Bill Russell, the legendary and outspoken basketball star.)
Branch sees what's going on, as O'Connor notes -
Well. James Earl Ray took care of things so it didn't come to that.
The America that emerges from Branch's pages is on the razor's edge of history, and it could be cutting and ugly. King's demands for racial equality were met in Southern newspapers with grotesque cartoons whose smiling minstrels were the face of virulent hatred.
FBI agents slink around "At Canaan's Edge" like goons in a noir novel, spreading lies in a relentlessly hostile campaign to discredit him on every conceivable level, a far cry from the frequent Hollywood portrayals of civil-rights-era agents as white knights doing battle against an anonymous black backdrop.
One of the more dubious FBI smears was an attempt to portray him as an associate of Muhammad Ali. An FBI agent timidly pointed out the obvious: The plan might backfire because many people regarded the boxer as a folk hero. But his supervisors went ahead with the plan.
FBI agents wiretapped King's hotel room and phone conversations for years to record information about his infidelities, which they unsuccessfully tried to disseminate in the press. Branch says the FBI even tried to dissuade King from traveling to Oslo, Norway, to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize by blackmailing him for his personal life. In Branch's eyes, the FBI was "blackmailing him toward suicide."
But the damage was done. King had started something.
Branch credits the King-led civil rights movement with "deepening democratization, providing momentum for the budding antiwar and women's movements," and "making gay rights imaginable."
Maybe so. But as for the civil rights movement with "deepening democratization, providing momentum for the budding antiwar and women's movements," and "making gay rights imaginable," is that a stretch?
King was writ large. He's echoing Jefferson and Lincoln as well as Isaiah and Jeremiah. He speaks on the shoulders of the prophets and the patriots alike. We don't hear that kind of language now, and if we did I think it would make us all better citizens.
Well, Taylor Branch says no, and argues that in his long assessment of King and his legacy, Globalizing King's Legacy, published in the New York Times on the holiday, and the following day in the Times' Paris newspaper, the International Herald Tribune.
Everyone has honed in on what comes near the end of the piece -
But there's more, and he uses the twentieth of these "official celebrations" to explain.
We could also restore Dr. King's role in the continuing story of freedom to its rightful prominence, emphasizing that the best way to safeguard democracy is to practice it. And we must recognize that the accepted tradeoff between freedom and security is misguided, because our values are the essence of our strength. If dungeons, brute force and arbitrary rule were the keys to real power, Saudi Arabia would be a model for the future instead of the past.
He quotes King after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, claiming the movement had revived nothing less than the visionary heritage of the American Revolution. -"The stirring lesson of this age is that mass nonviolent direct action is not a peculiar device for Negro agitation. "Rather it is a historically validated method for defending freedom and democracy, and for enlarging these values for the benefit of the whole society."
King makes that extraordinary claim, but Branch notes what followed -
Yes, all that followed, and what King did started something, or at least made something possible.
Parallel tides opened doors for the first female students at some universities and most private colleges, then the military academies. In 1972, civil rights agitation over doctrines of equal souls produced the first public ordination of a female rabbi in the United States, and the Episcopal Church soon introduced female clergy members in spite of schismatic revolts to preserve religious authority for men. Pauli Murray, a lawyer who was one of the pioneer priests, had pursued a legal appeal that in 1966 overturned several state laws flatly prohibiting jury service by women. "The principle announced seems so obvious today," Dr. Murray would write in a memoir, "that it is difficult to remember the dramatic break the court was making."
Overseas, as an amalgam of forces suddenly dissolved the Soviet empire atop its mountain of nuclear weapons, Dr. King's message echoed in the strains of "We Shall Overcome" heard along the Berlin Wall and the streets of Prague. Likewise, South African apartheid melted without the long-dreaded racial Armageddon, on miraculous healing words from a former prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Students shocked the world from Tiananmen Square with nonviolent demonstrations modeled on American sit-ins, planting seeds of democracy within the authoritarian shell of Chinese Communism.
These and other sweeping trends from the civil rights era have transformed daily life in many countries, and now their benefit is scarcely contested.
And now? Branch says "the political discourse behind them is atrophied."
Yep, we live in an age where violence is not only praised, but all else is considered foolishness. Branch is, with King, saying that "every ballot - the most basic element of free government - is by definition a piece of nonviolence, symbolizing hard-won or hopeful consent to raise politics above anarchy and war."
Public service has fallen into sad disrepute. Spitballs pass for debate. Comedians write the best-selling books on civics. Dr. King's ideas are not so much rebutted as cordoned off or begrudged, and for two generations his voice of anguished hope has given way to a dominant slogan that government itself is bad.
Above all, no one speaks for nonviolence. Indeed, the most powerful discipline from the freedom movement was the first to be ridiculed across the political spectrum. "A hundred political commentators have interred nonviolence into a premature grave," Dr. King complained after Selma. The concept seemed alien and unmanly.
Of course we have to have a war to set up those elections in Iraq. Very odd. What would King think of that? Branch says that a few hours before King stepped out on the Memphis balcony and was gunned down he said, "In our next campaign we have to institutionalize nonviolence and take it international." A preemptive war may not have been what he had in mind. Still, the president on the holiday visited the Library of Congress and did a photo-op where he peered that the Emancipation Proclamation under glass, and later said King was "one of the greatest Americans who ever lived." But he did not urge that we institutionalize nonviolence. That's not his style.
On the King holiday the president had to deal with the fallout from his style of making the world better - As Pakistanis Protest, Questions Remain - Four Days After The Deadly Airstrikes, Answers Prove Elusive.
That item, from Jim Maceda of NBC, is one of many summaries of the situation - we tried to take out Osama bin Laden's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, with a precision airstrike in the wilds of Pakistan, but didn't seem to get him. We got eighteen civilians, including women and children, and over the weekend, "tens of thousands of angry Pakistanis took to the streets." This is not good.
The president's father, now a UN special envoy, met with Pakistan President Pervez Musharra, and got an earful. The elder Bush wanted to talk about earthquake relief, but Pervez Musharra is catching crap from his own people over this. We're supposed to be allies. One supposes folks are asking Musharra just why being with the Americans in all this is such a good thing. Maceda says this mistake "squandered all goodwill toward America and damaged Musharraf's credibility." No kidding.
But is it their fault? What did Pakistanis really know about the attack? -
This, lying and death from the sky, is not with King would have envisioned as bringing democracy to the world.
Very little. It seemed to take the country by surprise. Government officials claim they had no warning. Even former intelligence chief Gen. Hameed Gul, who worked closely with the CIA for years, said he was shocked.
"The CIA, they are responsible for the action and then Pakistan is not taken into confidence," he says.
But other counterterrorism sources tell NBC News that, with 50,000 security forces along the Afghan border, Pakistani agents must have been in the know.
Could the intelligence have been phony?
Pakistan's five intelligence agencies - with different agendas - compete with each other. Intelligence is often sold to the highest bidder and corruption runs deep.
Jim Miklaszewski provides more detail here - we're talking not one Predator drone, but three, simultaneously firing hellfire missiles at three separate targets. The CIA drones monitored the movements of al Qaeda suspects at the village for two weeks before the attack - and this was CIA and not the military, who are saying nothing. "Live Predator video is fed real-time from Pakistan to the Global Response Center on the sixth floor of the CIA outside Washington. From there, CIA Director Porter Goss himself would give the order. But if he's not available, the deputy or assistant CIA directors five levels down can also order the strike." Fine. That's what we do.
But it may turn out all fine. It seems we're testing bits and pieces, and the DNA from some small chunk of flesh from the scene may match the DNA of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and everyone will calm down and we'll look real good after all, because now, unlike the days of Martin Luther King, the ends really do justify the means.
That may be what has really changed. King, in inspired by Gandhi, held that the means by which you achieve your goal were, well, part of the goal - don't sink to violence, keep your dignity, and your honor, and as Taylor Branch says, understand "the best way to safeguard democracy is to practice it." Now? We'll bomb and kill to force you accept democracy.
King saw the same problem with Vietnam -
The president may say nice things about him on the holiday, but King would not be amused.
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
These days are like those days. The New York Times here quotes unnamed "American counterterrorism" officials about this business in Pakistan -
Well, you never know.
They offered a defense of the attack, saying they did not believe that innocent bystanders in Pakistan had been killed. One counterterrorism official said that even if Mr. Zawahiri was not killed in the attacks, "Some very senior Al Qaeda types might have been." The official declined to identify other Qaeda members thought to have been at the scene.
And then have your politicians -
The end justifies the means, and sorry about the dead kids.
"Now, it's a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do?" Sen. Evan Bayh, asked rhetorically. "It's like the wild, wild west out there. The Pakistani border's a real problem."
Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, said the "real problem" lay with the Pakistani government's inability to control that part of the country, where sympathetic residents were believed to be harboring al Qaeda leaders.
"So, regrettably, this kind of thing is what we're left with," Bayh told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."
... And Sen. Trent Lott added, "I would have a problem if we didn't do it."
"There's no question that they're still causing the death of millions of - or thousands of - innocent people and directing operations in Iraq," said Lott, a Mississippi Republican. "Absolutely, we should do it."
Bayh expressed similar sentiments, and cited the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001, as justification. "These people killed 3,000 Americans. They have to be brought to justice."
Senator John McCain, also concurred. "It's terrible when innocent people are killed; we regret that," he told CBS' "Face the Nation."
"But we have to do what we think is necessary to take out al Qaeda, particularly the top operatives. This guy has been more visible than Osama bin Laden lately.
"We regret it. We understand the anger that people feel, but the United States' priorities are to get rid of al Qaeda, and this was an effort to do so."
He added, "We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again."
All that is discussed by "Jeanne" here at Body and Soul -
That'll be the day. We don't have leaders like that these days.
We don't believe we killed innocent people. And even if we did, it doesn't matter because we might have killed some bad people at the same time and that would be good. And even if we didn't get any bad people, some of the "innocent" people may be sympathetic to the bad people. After all, these people killed three thousand Americans. Well, maybe not "these people" precisely, but some people who kind of looked like them, and came from roughly the same part of the world, give or take a thousand miles.
At least 18 people dead, and the senators are most anxious to assure us that it will happen again - just in case anyone was worried that we might display some signs of humanity.
So what else are we supposed to do? I know that's a rhetorical question, but let's treat it as an honest one nonetheless.
What else are we supposed to do?
... Awhile back, I said that I thought the Christian Peacemaker Teams were doing the most essential work in the world today - serving as models of what can be done with love, without violence. This is what I was talking about. Violence has not only produced nothing but more violence - blowback, if you will - but it's lead far too many of us to a soul-numbing state where we learn that we have murdered children and can convince ourselves there's no other way.
... Imagine what might happen if, today, in Pakistan, in Dr. King's honor, we took those words to heart, and heard the cries, and vowed to do everything we could to repair the damage, acknowledging that we could never entirely do so?
We don't, even on domestic issues.
Back in November, on the occasion of what would have been Bobby Kennedy's eightieth birthday, in these pages, here, you find what he had to say -
Well, he got shot too, just down the hill at the old Ambassador Hotel (now almost gone as they're tearing it down to build a new high school complex there).
... there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions, indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor; this poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies - to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look on our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear - only a common desire to retreat from each other - only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers. Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what program to enact. The question is whether we can find in our midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled nor enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land.
Can the Democrats find another like him?
Consider this -
Let's review. Bush steals one, probably both elections through vote fraud, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because that would undermine faith in the democratic process. Bush fails to react to copious pre-9/11 warnings, before the attack, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because that would undermine national unity at a time when we need to pull together. Bush makes a decision to go to war, then lies repeatedly to fool the country into supporting it, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because that would undermine our troops and war effort. Secret Bush policies condone and cover-up prisoner torture, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because they suspect that people basically don't mind torture (really) as long as the victims "deserve it" and it is in the service of "protecting" us. The Bush gang hands them the biggest gift imaginable in the Plame scandal, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because they don't want the investigation to appear "partisan." Bush breaks the law, illegally eavesdrops on innocent Americans, then says openly that he thinks its just fine and plans to keep doing it, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because they are afraid of appearing "soft" on national security. Bush appoints a Supreme Court nominee who is openly supportive of the worst of these Executive policies, and who is explicitly committed to overturning abortion rights, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because they are afraid of a fight over the filibuster. Congressional Republicans have created the biggest corruption scandal in decades, but the Democrats won't make an issue of it because a couple of them might be caught up in the net. Do these people WANT to win?
Posted in these pages here on 28 May 2003, in the first year on line -
So on and on we go.
Do you remember the clear-headed, no-bullshit, let's-be-fair liberals of yesterday? Bobby Kennedy in that last run just laying it all out - hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don't we think it through, fix it and make things better? Well, Bobby got shot. Martin Luther King doing the same thing. Well, he got shot a few months earlier than Bobby. Of course, to be fair, George Wallace got shot too. Lots of people got shot.
But the point is that those optimistic "why don't we fix it and make things better" kinds of guys are nowhere to be found these days.
... No Democrat will win anything by whining about the smirking frat boy or by fretting about some British essayist hating cheeseburgers and everything American. To win the Democrats would have to field an opponent with a sense of humor, some brains, and a lot of optimism, someone who listens to what is being said, and is willing to say - "Hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don't we think it through, fix it and make things better?"
It does not seem like that is going to happen. And if it did, he or she would get shot.
The best we can do now is Al Gore?
In Martin Luther King Day Address, Gore Compares Wiretapping Of Americans To Surveillance Of King and this: "Al Gore has become the conscience of the Democratic Party."
It sort of makes you miss Martin and Bobby.