Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam
By Martin Luther King, Jr
Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City:
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.
Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.
Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.
The Importance of Vietnam
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.Since I am a preacher by trade, 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 the 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.
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath– America will be!
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the “Vietcong” or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
Finally, as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
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.
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.
Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not “ready” for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.
Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.
After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators — our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change — especially in terms of their need for land and peace.
The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy — and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us — not their fellow Vietnamese –the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go — primarily women and children and the aged.
They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one “Vietcong”-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them — mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force — the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?
Now there is little left to build on — save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these? Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These too are our brothers.
Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front — that strangely anonymous group we call VC or Communists? What must they think of us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the south? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of “aggression from the north” as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent Communist and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them — the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
So, too, with Hanoi. In the north, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in the French commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which would have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed again.
When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered. Also it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military breach of the Geneva agreements concerning foreign troops, and they remind us that they did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.
Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard of the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the north. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.
This Madness Must Cease
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words:
“Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.
The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
- End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
- Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
- Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
- Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.
- Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.
Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We most provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary.
Protesting The War
Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service we must clarify for them our nation’s role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is the path now being chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military “advisers” in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands 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 veins of people 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.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
The People Are Important
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every moutain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth and falsehood, For the good or evil side; Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, Off’ring each the bloom or blight, And the choice goes by forever Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet ’tis truth alone is strong; Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong: Yet that scaffold sways the future, And behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow Keeping watch above his own.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
July 31st, 2018
Thinking for Ourselves
The latest instance is the effort to get voters to authorize a revision of the City Charter. Proposal R should be voted down.
The City of Detroit adopted its current Charter in 2012, after a 3 year public process of discussion. This Charter has never been fully implemented. Bankruptcy, Consent Agreements, Emergency Management, and the current administration’s lackluster approach to citizen engagement have stalled the full execution of the Charter.
Still, this Charter made some important changes in how we agreed to live as a city. First among them is the effort to create a more accountable and neighborhood centered government. This was behind the move to change the City Council from nine at large members to seven district-based representatives and two at large members. The Charter also shifted the civilian Police Commission from an appointed body to seven elected commissioners and 4 appointed members, again attempting to move control into a more responsive framework. Overall the new Charter strengthens the legislative branch and limits executive powers through such efforts as requiring Council approval of Mayoral appointments. It mandated increased citizen input into the decision-making process.
All of these changes are considered problematic by the corporate power structure. But the real basis of the desire to revise the charter does not come from its mechanisms of governance. Rather it is the spirit of the Charter itself that corporate power object to. That spirit is imbodied the Preamble and Declaration of Rights. These statements, taken together reflect expansive thinking about the responsibilities of city governments and provide a foundation for establishing policies that care and protect all citizens. The values embodied in it reflect the African American character of our city and a commitment to beloved communities.
The Preamble sets out the bonds to consider in any policy. It says:
We, the people of Detroit, do ordain and establish this Charter for the governance of our City, as it addresses the needs of all citizens and affirms our commitment to the development and welfare of our youth, our most precious treasure; instituting programs, services and activities addressing the needs of our community; fostering an environment and government structure whereby sound public policy objectives and decisions reflect citizen participation and collective desires; pledging that all our officials, elected and appointed, will be held accountable to fulfill the intent of this Charter and hold sacred the public trust; acknowledging our blessings from God, we pray our efforts will be accepted.
In the DECLARATION OF RIGHTS the Charter establishes:
“Government is a service institution that recognizes its subordination to the people of Detroit,” that the city “shall provide for the public peace, health and safety of persons and property within its jurisdictional limits” and the “people have a right to expect aggressive action by the City’s officers in seeking to advance, conserve, maintain and protect the integrity of the human, physical and natural resources of this city from encroachment and/or dismantlement.
It also declares:
“The people have a right to expect city government to provide for its residents, decent housing; job opportunities; reliable, convenient and comfortable transportation; recreational facilities and activities; cultural enrichment, including libraries and art and historical museums; clean air and waterways, safe drinking water and a sanitary, environmentally sound city.”
Neither the current Mayor, nor most of the City Council are living up to this spirit. Decision after decision, from the refusal to stop water shut offs and foreclosures to the giving of land to developers and spending of money for jails, officials are bowing to corporate interests, not the public trust.
Creating a real democracy in our city will require a lot more of us that words in a Charter. But an important step in its creation is the protection of some of our best aspirations. Reject Proposal R.
“Julia Putnam, the 42-year-old principal of Detroit’s James & Grace Lee Boggs School, is the most recent in a long line of strong women helping to build the next generation — dating back to her great grandmother, the first in her family to come to Detroit from Alabama, a woman called “mother” by all in her family. Putnam’s grandmother was a receptionist at a social services agency, her mother a nurse, and so it makes sense that the next generation in this matriarchal line would embody work and service to community.”
July 24th, 2018
July 24th, 2018
Thinking for Ourselves Shea Howell A Country Not Yet Born:
Vincent Harding has been on my heart these last few days. July 25 marks the passing of 87 years since he was born. Many know him as a theologian, an historian, a friend and collaborator of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the primary author of the 1967 speech delivered at Riverside Church where Dr. King denounced the war in Vietnam, identified the U.S. as the greatest “purveyor of violence” on the globe called for a “radical revolution in values against racism, materialism and militarism.” Vincent thought it was that speech that marked King for destruction by the white power structure. Its vision was too expansive, too challenging, too inclusive, to be allowed to stand.
I first met Vincent in the mid 1970’s through his work with the Institute of the Black World (IBW). Based in Atlanta, Vincent was the primary energy in bringing together a group of activist intellectuals to develop analysis and new ideas to further the Black Freedom Struggles. In the course of its life from 1969 to 1983 IBW developed the foundation of African American and African Studies departments in Universities and colleges throughout the country, helped create a larger consciousness about the breadth and depth of thinking among the African diaspora, and encouraged the works of intellectuals such as C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Julius Lester, Sylvia Wynter and Robert Hill.
In 1976, as part of this commitment, Vincent had agreed to publish a conversation between James Boggs and Xavier Nicholas entitled “Questions of the American Revolution.” It was in connection with publishing this work that I met Vincent and his family as they traveled to Detroit to further their relationship with James and Grace Boggs.
My last conversation with Vincent was in April of 2014. I was helping arrange a speaking engagement for him in Detroit as part of the Twisted Storytellers series. Shortly before he was to come, he became ill and died a few weeks later on May 19 at the age of 82.
Over the course of those years I saw Vincent frequently, often in Detroit when he visited to speak, especially against war, weapons and violence. We attended conferences and gatherings together. Vincent always asked the hard questions, always reminded us that we had much to learn from the struggles of those who had gone before us, those ordinary people called to do extraordinary things. In the early part of the 21st Century we worked closely with the Beloved Communities Initiative, looking for the places and spaces where people were creating the future as they put principles of love, compassion, joy and productivity into practice. This search for what we came to call “spirit rooted activism.” It was guided by the web of relationships Vincent had created across this land over decades of quiet organizing.
I have many lessons from him, many questions still lingering with the sound of his voice. But for me today, his greatest gift was the understanding of how complicated and complex movement times are. They are never the simple, clear, bold efforts of sure sighted people, as conventional history wants us to think they are. Rather they are the results of people filled with doubts, but finding their ways to action, of people singing themselves into courage. They are moments of creativity and compassion, as well as moments of conniving and self interest. But it this movement of people, trying to work out what democracy really can look like, that has been the best promise of America. This week as many of us gather to remember his life and legacy, his basic question of how do we live as citizens in a country not yet born remains as crucial as it was more than half a century ago. This is the only path of hope.
There is a River & The Inconvenient Hero: A Tribute to Dr. Vincent Harding The Charles H. Wright Museum Wednesday, July 25, 2018 at 6 PM
Panel Discussion | Q & A | Book Signing
Speakers: Aljosie Harding, Teacher, Researcher, Librarian, Organizer, & Activist William Strickland, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of Afro-American Studies, UMass-Amherst Shea Howell, Ph.D., Professor of Journalism, Oakland University Frank Joyce, Author & Activist
This event is free and open to the public. For more information call (313) 494-5800.
CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org PHONE: 313-736-5957 WEB: www.detroitjustice.org
Detroit Justice Center Sues Wayne County in Federal Court to Defend Public’s Right to Referendum on New Jail Suit alleges County provided only “sham notice” of its intent to issue bonds to finance new Criminal Justice Complex
DETROIT, MI, July 18, 2018—The Detroit Justice Center (DJC) filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday to demand that Wayne County properly notify residents of its intent to issue bonds to finance a new Criminal Justice Complex. The proposed complex, which would include a 2,280-bed adult jail and a 160-bed youth jail, has been met with significant public opposition.
In April of this year, the Wayne County Commission approved the issue and sale of up to $425 million in bonds to fund construction of a new jail and court facilities to replace the “Fail Jail” on Gratiot. By statute, Michigan voters have the right to seek a referendum on the issuance of bonds for capital projects. This right comes into being upon the publication of a Notice of Intent to Issue Bonds and expires 45 days later. On June 7, the County Commission voted to give final approval to the Criminal Justice Complex and to authorize issuance of bonds. The time period for a referendum had passed, unnoticed by most Wayne County voters.
According to the lawsuit, the notice published by the County on April 17 provided virtually no notice, stripping Wayne County voters of their right to a referendum on $425 million in additional public debt as well as the jail itself. Attorneys argue that:
-The notice failed to accurately describe both the project and the bonds themselves. Of particular significance, the word “jail” is not found in the notice. A layperson encountering the notice would be left with little idea of what was being built or how much it would ultimately cost taxpayers.
-The County published the notice in a manner calculated to minimize—rather than maximize—actual notice. Wayne County published a notice in the print-only edition of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News on a Tuesday—the lowest circulation day after Saturday. The total estimated print circulation for both papers in Wayne County on a Tuesday is 22,714—approximately 2% of Wayne County’s 978,638 registered voters.
-The notice cannot be found online using popular search tools such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo. The notice was not placed on the Commission’s website or Facebook page. The notice can only be found online by searching a public notices database linked to the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News websites. However, a search using the keywords “Wayne County Jail” or even “jail” would not produce the notice because it fails to mention the jail.
-Community members concerned about the Community Justice Complex were aware of the public right to referendum triggered by publication, and they actively sought information on the notice’s publication. When one plaintiff contacted a Commissioner’s office in early May to obtain information regarding the publication date, he was told the notice had not yet been published. Indeed, the County’s notice appears to have eluded even the Commission’s members.
The lawsuit, filed by the Detroit Justice Center on behalf of three Wayne County registered voters, argues that by publishing a notice that was a mere gesture—not actual notice—Wayne County failed to fulfill its statutory obligations and deprived its residents of their fundamental rights without due process.
Prior to filing this lawsuit, the Detroit Justice Center and community advocates requested that the County reissue the required notice. On June 26, DJC wrote to Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and the Wayne County Commissioners on behalf of citizens, community advocates, and attorneys who were alarmed by the revelation that the County intended to proceed with issuing the bonds. Signatories included American Friends Service Committee’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program, Black Youth Project (BYP 100), Civil Rights Corps, Detroit Action Commonwealth, Detroit Nation Outside, Detroit People’s Platform, Good Jobs Now, JustLeadershipUSA, the Michigan chapters of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and the National Lawyers’ Guild, Street Democracy, the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, and others.
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has declined requests to meet or republish the notice, claiming through the County’s legal counsel that the notice was sufficient.
“The law requires voter input for a reason,” said Eric Williams, a staff attorney at the Detroit Justice Center. “The people of Wayne County have a right to weigh in before saddling future generations with debt and, in this case, more jails. If this right is trampled on, then decisions are made with little connection or input from the people most impacted by them.”
Wayne County residents have long voiced concerns about the proposed new jail. For example, a Commission meeting on February 16th, 2017 was delayed by 42 minutes due to a demonstration by residents expressing their opposition to the jail. In April 2017, protesters gathered in front of the unfinished Gratiot Jail for two hours to criticize the County’s choice to allocate funds to a jail project rather than community resources. At two community meetings held by the County this spring, an overwhelming majority of residents opposed the Criminal Justice Complex, citing environmental concerns, cost concerns, and questioning the need for a new jail. At the meeting, residents asked for more public investment in mental health supports, affordable housing, and education, rather than new jails. Read yesterday’s filing of Buni et al v. Wayne County here.
A PDF version of this press release is available here.
The Detroit Justice Center is a non-profit legal organization that works alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities. Read more about us at www.detroitjustice.org.
A Sweet Water Learning Journey Kim Sherobbi
Our learning journey and exchange at Sweet Water Foundation accomplished its mission. Through stories and interaction with others in Chicago, we were repeatedly reminded about the importance of work. More than just a garden. More than just feeding people. More than just a job. Our work is impactful and transformational. Our work is wholistic. Our work can put us in danger. These statements, offered in conversation and fellowship, deepened relationships between Detroiters, the two cities and activists.
Throughout our trip, we heard stories of people’s struggles to become stable. Narratives about feeling useful and living a life with purpose. Being a family. Sweet Water Foundation was referred to as a sanctuary. A place of respite. A liberated zone. Through these stories, it became more apparent that stabilizing people allows for actualizing a culture that values all living things. Stabilize to Actualize is a phrase that resonates within me now. Our journey to Sweet Water has caused me to intensify my commitment to revolutionary work. In addition, it left me with questions such as:
How do we stabilize people mentally, physically and spiritually?
How will the bond between Detroit and Chicago continue? Strengthen? Benefit our revolutionary work to create a peaceful and just world?
Some of the answers to my questions may have come from Emmanuel. During one of our gatherings, he identified housing, food, finances, transportation and access to a phone as essential components for the stabilization process. Although it was not stated directly, access to a supportive and nurturing people is necessary for community members to become settled. Much of what he stated I heard or thought of before. However, seeing and listening to the responses to what Emmanuel was saying from predominantly young black males who are now committed to transformational revolutionary work engaged my inner-spirit in a new way. Also, witnessing the humility and feeling the energy of the people in the room made a huge difference. Birwood House and Feedom Freedom Growers people where there. Stephen Hanes was there. Godsil was there. Visitors from Columbia were there. Young white college students who are searching for their humanity were there. Many others were there. It was a moment of transformation and connection. One that can be better understood through experience than explanation.
Emmanuel spoke about the militarization that was happening in Chicago. Sound weapons that bring people to their knees. Rubber bullets. Families being taken to prison just for suspicion. He spoke about the need to have various conversations about race, oppressive conditions, strategy and responsibility. I have never heard Emmanuel speak with this level of consciousness and conviction. I appreciate his awareness of this time on the clock of the world.
To sum it up, there are many unanswered questions and much work still to be done. With persistence, creativity and love, our work will move forward. Although doing revolutionary work can be emotional and grueling, it is wonderfully fulfilling.
July 16th, 2018
July 16th, 2018
Remembering Jim Jackson Rich Feldman and Stephen Ward
Our dear friend James Jackson of Muskegon joined the ancestors on [GIVE THE DATE]. James Jackson is now with his dear comrades James and Grace Lee Boggs. He was a founding member of the Muskegon Branch of the National Organization for an American Revolution (NOAR) and later a founding Board Member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.
Jim Jackson was a pioneering doctor and freedom fighter. He integrated the hospital in Muskegon, authored the Health Pamphlet for NOAR, and started the African American History Museum in Muskegon. In 1964, James Jackson was the Vice Presidential candidate on for the Freedom Now Party, the all-Black political party headed by Reverend Albert B. Cleage (Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman) who later formed the Shrine of th4e Black Madonna.
Jim was one of my elders and my mentors. He was also a friend who always shared stories of fishing and his commitments to being a long distance runner. I remember his commitment to health, jogging, and family medicine, and at the same time I remember him jogging in Northeast Harbor near Sutton Island (the setting for Conversations in Maine) and then eating a package of twinkies. I also remember when Jim Jackson challenged folks to stop littering because littering was such an anti-social act. As a young radical and revolutionist, I had no understanding of the importance of “small acts,” values and principles. Jim Jackson did.
I share these recollections because I want to remind myself and my comrades in Detroit and across the country that our elders, our ancestors gave us gifts of political struggle, theory, and reflection, and as we live in movement times again, we have a responsibility to share the gifts we were given.
Jim Jackson truly believed that we needed to change ourselves to change the world. As our comrade Ron Scott once said: if we were going to build a new movement we need to transform ourselves and actually “put a picket sign in our head.” While the National Organization for an American Revolution never had more than a few hundred members and friends in 15-20 cities, it was an important moment in the history of revolutionary struggle of the 1960s & 1970s. Jim understood that it was the internal contradictions and our inabilities to confront our own weaknesses that laid the basis for our setbacks.
Jim Jackson was an essential part of the legacy and lineage of the work, writings, thinking, theory and reflection of James & Grace Lee Boggs, rom Black Power to the National Organization for an American Revolution and to the founding Board of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. The commitment to place that Jim made in Muskegon stands as part of the legacy we are continuing through our commitment to create a movement for hope, which we named Detroit: A City of Hope.
While we now look back at the 1960s Black Power Movement and the revolutionary period of the 1960s which was 50 years AFTER World War, we now live in period of revolution and counter-revolution. The revolutionary movement is emerging in our cities and across our country. Jim Jackson truly believed that this is a time for a new dream.
Thank you Jim. Love to your family. We look forward to your memorial in the fall.
One of the primary missions of Riverwise magazine is to survey the sites where visionary organizing work is occuring in the city of Detroit. There are many examples of people who are transforming themselves and the stagnant institutions around them through fresh political and economic programs born in marginalized neighborhoods. This is where the social revolution we need to change the world is emerging. By putting these community-building efforts together, we are advancing the commitment to ‘community control’, which has long been an aspiration of many social justice movements.
Thinking for Ourselves Shea Howell Risky Waters
Water seeks connections. Over this last week we were reminded of the essential role of safe, clean, affordable water for human life. While Donald Trump drew attention for his destruction and destabilization of international relationships, his new home town was suffering from a water crisis. Tens of thousands of people in Washington D.C. were warned not to drink their water. For over a week, a temporary drop in water pressure due to an infrastructure failure, resulted in a boil water advisory to much of the city. When water pressure drops, the possibility of toxins entering the water system soars.
The advisory in D.C. was poorly handled and many residents are concerned that children and elders were exposed to contamination long before anyone received word of a problem. The sheer dimensions of the contamination made it difficult for officials to contact people in a timely way.
Meanwhile in Detroit, people on the East Side once again faced massive flooding from failures in the water infrastructure. People throughout the northeast section of the city reported street closures due to flooding and basements with 4 to 5 feet of water in them. At a time of year when temperatures soar, people will now have to cope with standing, stagnant waters, breeding disease.
Water not flowing in D.C. or flooding in Detroit are two sides of the same massive problem. Both put people at risk. Both demonstrate the lack of thoughtfulness in addressing how we as a people will protect one another and the waters that are essential to sustain life.
These problems of infrastructure are compounded in Detroit by the resumption of intensive water shut offs. After a brief suspension during the July 4th holiday when temperatures climbed above 90 degrees, water shut offs are back.
These shut offs put everyone at risk. As in D.C. many neighborhoods face decreased pressure on their lines, accelerating the possibility of toxins entering the system for those where water flows. At the same time, water shut offs make basic sanitation more and more difficult. Nearly 20 thousand households, more than 50,000 people, are at risk of losing water. Homrich Wrecking continues to drive through the city, turning off life giving water, earning its $7.8 million dollar contract. We spend nearly 3 times as much to turn people off than to keep people on.
Recent studies are now helping us see just how much this foolish policy puts all of us at risk. The Peoples Water Board recently released a study by George Gains, former director of public health in Detroit, documenting the increase in infectious diseases most commonly associated with unsanitary conditions created by lack of access to clean water.
Gains looks at public health data as well as the recent study by Henry Ford Hospital and notes that from 2012 to 2015 “GI outbreaks annually averaged 10.2.” As water shut offs accelerated, “2016 had 45 and 2017 had 87 outbreaks.”
He concluded, “Water shut off city policy is ultimately setting up for compromised sanitation that feeds the disease agents.” His recommendation is straightforward “Stop the Water Shut offs.”
Stopping the water shut offs is an essential first step. But the reality of providing clean, safe, affordable water to all people requires much more substantial changes in how we understand our responsibilities to each other and the waters upon which we all depend.
There is a River & The Inconvenient Hero: A Tribute to Dr. Vincent Harding The Charles H. Wright Museum Wednesday, July 25, 2018 at 6 PM
Panel Discussion | Q & A | Book Signing
Speakers: Aljosie Harding, Teacher, Researcher, Librarian, Organizer, & Activist William Strickland, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of Afro-American Studies, UMass-Amherst Shea Howell, Ph.D., Professor of Journalism, Oakland University Frank Joyce, Author & Activist
This event is free and open to the public. For more information call (313) 494-5800.
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