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Book Discussion

Posted on: September 3rd, 2014 by BWNWAdmin No Comments

Eugene has a Beyond War Book Group that meets monthly to evaluate books and create discussion questions to include in a Beyond War Reader’s Guide in order to help other Book Discussion Groups.

 Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream Writings and Speeches edited by James M. Washington

After Martin Luther King, Jr., was called on to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, he came into the national spotlight.  There were death threats and attempts to kill him.  Bombs were thrown onto the front porch of his home, and in September 1958, he was stabbed as he was signing his recently-published Montgomery story.  Severely wounded, King was rushed to Harlem Hospital.  The next day the New York Times reported that the blade had been on the edge of his aorta. Ten years later, King recalled a letter that had been sent to him as he recovered from the stabbing.  A ninth grader, a young white girl, wrote:  “I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died.  And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”  We should all be happy that he didn’t sneeze.  In the remaining ten years of his life, King changed America.  Through his leadership in nonviolent direct action, institutional racism was made illegal.

 Editor James M. Washington has titled the last selection of King’s speeches, “A Prophet Foresees the Future.” (p. 167). King’s ideas coalesced around the unifying principle of non-violent action.  Even though the Civil War had been fought a hundred years earlier to abolish slavery, southern U.S. social culture and institutions continued to claim that Negroes, former slaves, were less than human and deserved, even enjoyed, second-class status.  By the middle of the twentieth century, these systems and institutions that maintained segregation, inferior education, restricted voting rights, and poverty for blacks could no longer be ignored.

King was well educated and had a brilliant mind, versed in the writings of philosophers from Kant to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to the study of Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre.  But first and foremost, he was a preacher.  He based his life on his Lord’s requirement for human behavior stated in Micah 6:8 “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness.”  King had a vision of the world built on justice and fairness, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low: the uneven ground shall become level and rough places plain” from Isaiah 40:4 to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” from Amos 5:24. Drawing inspiration from the Old Testament prophets, King described a new interracial society based on freedom and justice for all.

King believed the new society could be brought about by nonviolent action.  Unjust laws were out of harmony with the moral law of the universe, and something was going to give.  If the world were to be changed by violence, the aftermath would be bitterness and more violence.  But the aftermath of nonviolent change is reconciliation and the creation of a “beloved community.”  The process of nonviolent direct action creates crises, and establishes a creative tension to encourage a recalcitrant community to confront the issues.  By dramatizing the issues, the issues could no longer be ignored.

Conservative voices, including many white clergy, criticized King for pushing too fast.  In effect, they were encouraging Negroes to patiently accept injustice which they themselves did not have to endure.  King answers those critics in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail.  He was also denounced by more radical elements like those in the Black Power movement for not moving fast enough.  Yet King remained steadfast to his commitment to nonviolent direct action.  The Voting Rights Act, signed into law in 1965 is a result of his leadership.  There were race riots from Watts to Detroit in King’s lifetime, but his nonviolent confrontations saved America from an even greater bloodbath.

In 1967, King led an anti-Vietnam War demonstration and publicly made the connections between profit and capitalism and war.  He called for restructuring the whole American society.  Without systemic changes, the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”  These prophetic words were followed by King’s assassination a few months later.  James W. Douglas in his book “JFK and the Unspeakable” argues there was a direct connection between King’s anti-military and anti-capitalism stance and his killing.  After his death, the war in Vietnam dragged on.  The billions spent there choked off funds for the “Great Society” with its “War on Poverty.”  In many ways, we are still living in the aftermath of the great violence America perpetrated in Vietnam.  It left a legacy of bitterness and violence just as King predicted.

Dorothy Sampson


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