Thoreau, Gandhi and Doctor King

In Burnside Park

This Sunday at First UU, Reverend James Ishmael Ford delivered a sermon, ‘The Disobedience Sutra’. Taking the root meaning of ‘sutra’ as ‘thread’, he follows the thread from Thoreau, to Gandhi to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., looking upstream to the source of conscience…

There is still more following of that thread. Influenced directly by both Thoreau and Gandhi, and again through Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., tells us “there is within human nature something that can respond to goodness.” It is the same intuition articulated in Thoreau’s essay, enriched by the wisdom of India’s peaceful revolution, by seeing conscience as truth force.

I believe Martin Luther King gets us very close to the headwaters. He takes us up the thread very close to the knot. And he brings home to us the power of Civil Disobedience, the Disobedience Sutra. King refocuses on the power of the truth force within us, of our intimate knowing of the preciousness of the individual. And, a little of why. There’s that lovely image of a cloak of mutuality, which covers us all, that binds us all together as one. King, somehow it feels better to say Martin, Martin sings to us of love and conscience as the manifestation of love, of our deepest intimacy with ourselves, each other, and the whole blessed mess. Out of that great insight he articulated three principles “We must meet hate with love. We must meet physical force with soul force (And, throughout the struggle for justice)…we must follow nonviolence and love….” as one thing. This is the way of the wise heart.

It’s a good thing maybe, that we remember the nobility, the gift that Dr.King gave to us, and forget the hate, the names, the critics left and right that he faced. Dr. King’s work lives on, the thread was not severed with his premature death. It leads to citizens facing the cold, putting their time, energy and safety on the line to Occupy our conscience.

Faith vs Guns

Today’s sermon by Rev. James Ford was dedicated to the life of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King.

I understand when Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, after the police and FBI arrived, during all the confusion, people running around, agents trying to get a handle on what had happened, one agent informed his superior on a walkie-talkie how he just heard Coretta Scott King say that Martin’s dream would never die. There was, I gather, a pause. Then the agent’s superior instructed him to, “Find out what that dream was.” So, what was that dream? And what might it mean for us? I think these are terribly important questions, and finding some sense of their meaning is critical for us in these hard, hard times.

Dr. King was surrounded by danger and threats every day of his public ministry. The forces of law worked as much to thwart him as protect him. What dream inspired him to face guns with truth, knowing the risk he took?

Do our representatives think of this, when they speak to a crowd? Is it some kind of faith that our national sanity will prevail that allows them to stand before us without bulletproof glass? Will they get our vote for that, or will we rush to arm ourselves and let the right to speak fearlessly recede into history?

What kind of courage led unarmed people to march for rights, in the face of weapons and the mis-use of law? What dream of America did they value more than life? Can we find out what that dream was?

Compare and Contrast

Kai Wright, of The Nation examines the claims of Glenn Beck and other revisionists who wrap themselves in the mantle of the civil rights movement…

There are many things about King’s dream speech that Beck won’t likely point out at this weekend’s gathering. Perhaps top among them: the 1963 March on Washington was the work of a war-resisting labor organizer, A. Philip Randolph, and an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin, who was himself a war-resisting socialist.

The event’s actual name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That moniker was a compromise between King, who wanted a more focused event, and Randolph, who helped broker the broad constituency that made the march the largest peacetime gathering in the nation’s history at the time. King’s iconic speech reflected the event’s dual focus on economic and political justice–and it included much, much more than a call to judge people by their character.

Why is Glenn Beck aligning himself with a man who ‘palled around’ with socialists and homosexuals and union organizers? Why is he claiming to carry on the spirit of a movement that drew federal troops to enforce de-segregation of schools? Why is he quoting a man who did, indeed, call for re-distribution of wealth from the rich to the poor as a Christian practice and a matter of basic justice?

Because Martin Luther King was on the right side of history. Because he was an American hero. And because America has a short memory and prefers saints and martyrs over real human beings with doubts and flaws. It takes effort to read through Dr.King’s speeches or read his biography. It takes effort to learn about the many brave people of all races who worked with Dr.King, among them, Prof. Bernard Lafayette who taught nonvioence at URI..

When Dr. King was assassinated he was working for economic justice. Far from being revered, he faced brutal criticism from both white conservatives and black radicals who thought he made too many compromises.

Dr. King was murdered in Tennessee where he had gone to support a sanitation worker’s strike…

In the later 1960s, the targets of King’s activism were less often the legal and political obstacles to the exercise of civil rights by blacks, and more often the underlying poverty, unemployment, lack of education, and blocked avenues of economic opportunity confronting black Americans. Despite increasing militancy in the movement for black power, King steadfastly adhered to the principles of nonviolence that had been the foundation of his career. Those principles were put to a severe test in his support of a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. This was King’s final campaign before his death.

During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers had been crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. About two weeks later, on February 12, more than 1,100 of a possible 1,300 black sanitation workers began a strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition.

Dr. King called on us to open our eyes and see the injustices inflicted every day, and work to remedy them. His vision of America was one of justice and equal opportunity. He knew that removing the color bar was a beginning, not an end.

When so many politicians and entertainers claim to be speaking for God, it’s not such a surprise that some will claim to speak for leaders who are no longer here to contradict them. Dr. King’s words are on the record. They are pure gold. Compare and contrast and don’t settle for counterfeit.

EVANGELICAL VOICE: Reverend Jim Wallis also does a compare and contrast. He recalls Dr. King’s message of social justice.

Beyond Vietnam

Today, on the 47th anniversary of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King’s famous speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, there are many who want to wrap themselves in the aura of a struggle for justice that has been blessed by history.

Since we have short memories and the truth is not always comfortable, it’s important to remember that Doctor King was not murdered for having a dream. He confronted and provoked the powerful and goaded the consciences of many who would gladly have stopped at the gradual advance of racial justice in our own country, and rested on that. Doctor King was fiercely criticized for his stand against the Vietnam War and the politics behind that war.

Before we tie another yellow ribbon, and have another picnic to honor our troops, we should read his speech, ‘Beyond Vietnam–A Time to Break Silence’. Here is Doctor King on ‘the troops’…

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Compare and contrast. How do we restore America’s honor? By seeking some standard of political and religious ‘purity’ that makes enemies of our fellow Americans and chases around the world to defeat an enemy that has no uniforms or borders? An enemy that is not a nation, but an idea?

Or do we restore honor by ending the hopeless foreign wars that entangle us? By restraining our corporations from playing robber-baron here and abroad? By working for justice so that our troops will come home to a country that values its citizens? By restoring our safety net so that there will be no more homeless veterans?

Doctor King said in a speech that he had a dream, but in his life’s work he was wide awake, too awake for comfort and hated by many. He was considered a threat to the white race, and after many attempts on his life a white man succeeded in taking him away.

Now others claim to speak for him, but his words remain. Compare and contrast.

Claiming our History

March on Washington, 1963 Getty/AFP Images

My mind reels with the crazy 15-second news cycle, the flying slogans, the waving flags. So much nonsense and so tempting to jump in and argue. But the best remedy, in the long run, is a national lesson in history and civics.

Above is a photo of one of America’s great moments, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Below is quoted from the National Parks Service…

King’s speech was the grand finale of the August 28, 1963, “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The march, led by union leader A. Philip Randolph and organizer Bayard Rustin, drew 200,000 supporters, 50,000 of them white. They included clergy of every faith, students, blue-collar and white-collar workers, and celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marlon Brando, James Garner, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Robert Weisbrot, author of Freedom Bound, called the march “the largest political assembly in American history.” On August 22, 2003 the Martin Luther King, Jr. Inscription Dedication unveiled the commemoration of the “I Have a Dream” speech with a keynote presentation by Coretta Scott King. The work, an inscription in the granite approach to the Lincoln Memorial, marks the location where Dr. King spoke to the crowd, which assembled for the March on Washington.

Remember that Dr.King dedicated his life, and ultimately gave his life for justice. During his leadership in the civil rights movement he was called every name in the book, ‘un-American’ being the least of it. He was slandered, arrested, jailed and threatened. He endured threats to his wife and children.

If anyone claims to carry on his message, compare their actions to his and make your own judgement. There are some who work courageously and in obscurity to help our country realize the dream. A very few are called by history and challenged to lead, as Dr. King did so faithfully. Remember him, and all the other brave Americans who made the civil rights movement possible.

Nanny State

The Libertarian argument that it’s an assault on freedom for a state to ban smoking in restaurants caught my attention. Rand Paul says that sensible people can just choose to avoid smoky restaurants and bars.

It’s fresh in my memory that people used to smoke in all restaurants, and double in bars. For that matter, when I worked in factories people smoked on the assembly bench right next to me.

I actually tend for some reason to like people who smoke, and would sometimes hang out with the ‘smoker’s support group’ just for the conversation. But that was when I worked in a hospital, and the smokers gathered outside, and I truly had a choice to join them or not. It’s a shame the habit is so bad for you, when there’s so much stress and so few ways to feel good. But that’s another topic.

John Aravosis at Americablog has a good post on this…

This is the problem with Libertarians, but also conservatives (well, any political philosophy, really). The philosophy sounds nice in principle, but in practice it often doesn’t work. As a non-smoker, with allergies, and now asthma because of my allergies, my “choice” was always between joining my group of friends at a particular bar or restaurant, or staying home alone. I wasn’t about to tell 20 people, many of whom I barely knew, that instead of going to a bar tonight (since every single bar was smokey back in the day), maybe we could stay home and play Parcheesi instead. That’s not much of a choice.

This is the heart of the matter. Rigid thinking– whether it’s Catholic dogma or a fundamentalist literalism in the reading of law, or neat philosophical arguments about high principles, does not serve well in real life.

Many of us encountered the smoking/non-smoking situations. (A local restaurant actually built a lucite booth to confine the non-smokers, but that didn’t last long.) We worked it out and now you can eat and breathe and smoke outside if you must.

Fewer of us have encountered the situation of being in a happy group out for fun and realizing that one of us was the wrong race to be admitted to a restaurant or club.

This kind of thing happened, and not just in the South, and not very long ago. Why would anyone would want to bring that back? A neat philosophical argument that of course reasonable people would never patronize such businesses is refuted by recent history.

A business easily makes the calculation that it is better to turn away one customer than risk losing ten. The luxury of being in the majority is that you never even have to notice this, it’s not your problem. The pain of being in the minority is hearing from majority friends that it’s no big deal, one more slight, one more small cut— are you supposed to get used to it?

Reality is messy, isn’t it? Martin Luther King’s life experience was far different from Rand Paul’s. It would be good if white people learned to listen. It would be good if we would stop invoking Dr.King unless to recall his work for civil rights. It would be good if we would listen to Holocaust survivors, and learn that nothing in our current situation compares to what they went through.

The truth is that people are often not high-minded and logical. We will always need some social control against greed, bullying and scapegoating of minorities. It might seem like the jackboot of oppression to have to take your cig outside, but the guy next to you has a right to breathe.

Be Very Afraid

Rand Paul in Kentucky. When the Repubs go totally over the edge the hope of a two-party system with a real debate recedes.

Is this significant, a measure of the tone of the debate?

HEBRON, Ky. — After winning Kentucky’s Republican primary Tuesday night, Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul refused to take the call of congratulations from opponent Trey Grayson, according to Grayson’s campaign manager Nate Hodson.
Hodson did not elaborate, except to say “it happened.”
“This is truly a classless act in politics,” said Marc Wilson, a Republican lobbyist and friend of Trey Grayson.

Six months is a long time.

OUTSIDE AGITATORS: If you grew up in the sixties, it’s very weird to hear Rand Paul vs ‘the establishment’. This link follows the money, most of it was not raised in the Bluegrass state.

ON RACE: Well, you can make an argument, as here via Taylor Marsh, that restaurants should be able to refuse service to any racial or other groups the management doesn’t like, and the public will so abhor this disgraceful prejudice that such business will get no customers. That’s how it worked through most of American history, right? No one ever got ahead by pouring hell and humiliation on a minority. And Martin Luther King had a dream.
Rand Paul repeats the same line on Rachel Maddow.

SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE: That would be, ‘Weasel’. Sarah Palin’s endorsement was warmly received by the Paul campaign. Don’t think either of them is inarticulate. They are actually highly skilled in the faux-sincere techniques of appearing to say something while preserving deniability. I’d look out for ‘dog-whistles’ too since both of them pal around with groups that they wouldn’t want to be seen with on the national stage. Palin and Paul are both very smart people and have cash and influence behind them. Don’t underestimate.

CALLING HIM OUT: Rand Paul is already doing damage control over his convoluted non-support for the laws that banned racial discrimination.

On Thursday Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) an iconic figure of the Civil Rights movement seemed visibly angered when discussing Paul’s comments on MSNBC.
“I do believe he is not good for this country going forward,” the South Carolina Democrat declared.

Read Rep. Clyburn’s point by point dismantling of Rand Paul’s argument here.