27 January 2007

Of King & Country

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

As I mentioned elsewhere, I was recently in Atlanta – and I will come back, later, to address some Atlanta-specific details. First, though, I think it is important to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., whose influence on our nation is difficult to overstate.

While there, we visited both The King Center and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Founded by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, in 1968, the King Center was underwhelming – shockingly so. Walking in, one has the feel of being ... nowhere, really; you stand in the lobby of an unremarkable brick structure, with a security desk to one side, the entrance to a store on the other, and a set of stairs straight ahead. Once upstairs, the exhibits had the feel of a small-town museum from many decades ago, with a series of panel displays of small photographs and small-print text, located on two sides of the main room, and a selection of items (e.g., clothing, personal bible, etc.) in cases in the center of the room. Additional “galleries” on Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks were equally thin, and in the former case particularly, lacking any detailed information to help visitors connect the ideas (and history) of Gandhi with the ideas and history of King.

In as much as the King Center also has other business – creating and supporting programs on nonviolence, community service, etc. – housed in a different building, it might seem like this is only one small facet of a larger operation. However, once a visitor has crossed the street to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site and seen the exhibition there, it is an obvious intellectual leap to think: perhaps the King Center should close this extremely anemic and uninspired display and do something different. (And while they’re at it, they might consider sprucing up the building itself: there are stains on the ceiling, the carpet visually dates to an era long-gone, and the overall feel is one of disrepair.) The whole effect does not seem fitting to one of the greatest citizen-leaders this nation has known.

By contrast, the National Historic Site has an exhibition up (I believe it is called “Freedom Ride,” but the web site provides little information about what is on display) that is what it should be: engagingly detailed, making use of archival footage and sound clips, videos of contemporary interviews, large photographs, and lots of great quotes from King. One of the strongest elements of this installation is that it seeks to unite the different strands of King’s thinking and writing, showing how (for example) he believed his nonviolent campaign for civil rights related to a campaign for (and support of) anti-poverty initiatives under President Johnson’s administration, and then how King felt he had a moral obligation to oppose the war in Vietnam – and how and why this anti-war stance connected to these other areas.

It was here that I found a quote that seems quite relevant today, as we head towards the fourth year of war in Iraq, and as domestic issues become crunched by the demands of this catastrophic foreign war. In a speech called “Beyond Vietnam,” given in New York on 4 April 1967 (a year to the day before he was assassinated), King said:

“Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

The same certainly seems true in the United States almost forty years later: that President Bush’s war in Iraq is a drain on our resources – on our citizens, on our finances, on our creative power, and on our psyche – in a way that affects everything about our government’s ability to think clearly about the important challenges America faces, from civil liberties issues to social security and educational infrastructure problems. Finances aside, it can often feel like our national balance sheet is tilting heavily, that our weaknesses and problems outweigh our ability to address them, particularly as politicians get bogged down in faux-philosophical debates that they use to support their inaction or efforts not to do something. This is why, at the end of a rainy-day visit there – genuinely cold, unpleasant weather – the single best thing about a visit to the Historic Site is that it reminds the visitor of one of King’s most important messages: the value of hope and the opportunity for change. It is worth it, just for that.

(Please note: a PDF of the full text of the speech quoted is available here. The quote used in the exhibition does not include the first or last sentence quoted above. I have shown these here because they are in the original text, and they add useful context that the exhibition provided in a different way.)


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