Wednesday, January 30, 2008

History Repeats Itself

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Beyond Vietnam"
April 4, 1967
Riverside Church
New York City

Was it Lord Acton who said, "Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it"? Perhaps I am brought back to that adage because I am a student of history and continue to be amazed by the lessons it can teach. We are about to come to end of the month in which tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King are often heard. Maybe in honor of the anniversary of his birth but even more so for the current context provided by the war in Iraq, the local public radio station chose recently to air his Vietnam War speech delivered to a large gathering in Riverside Church on the upper west side of Manhattan almost forty-one years ago. .

There is another adage that applies here: "Youth is wasted on the young." In the spring of 1967 I was busy student teaching, looking forward to June graduation from Hunter College in New York City and a few months after that my first move from home and marriage at the tender age of twenty-two! Nobody does that anymore! Even though I was a history major in college I have only vague memories of Dr. King's anti-Vietnam War position and the dismay it caused both to the African-American community and to the white population largely in favor of the war.

Why broadcast this speech now? I was struck, fairly mesmerized by how applicable everything he said was to our current situation. Just change the word Vietnam to Iraq and no time has gone by at all. He spoke of prophetic vision, of the poor who fight our wars, for our democracy's lack of respect for the self-determination of other peoples, of materialism, of the self-interest of big business in the mechanism of war, of how while we do all we can to eliminate violence from our streets, we put guns into the hands of young men to commit violent acts elsewhere. I could go on.

To say that I was moved and impressed would be gross understatement. I should not have been so surprised. A few years ago I re-read Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and offered part of it as the second reading for the Liturgy of the Hours Office of Reading on Martin Luther King Day. Years later, an even more mature, even deeper thinking, more commited and wise man chose to speak out about the war. And he was courageous. As I listened, I said to myself, "Is it any wonder that they killed him?" He said things most people did not want to hear. He said them from a place of deep faith and conviction. Would that he could speak to us today. However, this speech does still speak. Give it a listen.

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