Saturday, January 26, 2008
King’s Words Highlight of Alternative Holiday Celebration
Answer to Military, Law Enforcement Presence at Official Parade
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom: Jonathan with Gloria Verdieu and spoken-word artist Sylvia Telafaro; Enrique Morones
While the official parade and “all-people’s breakfast” commemorating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday January 21 featured politicians, the military, immigration agents and other arms of U.S. law enforcement, the San Diego branch of the International Action Center (IAC) sponsored a small but lively alternative celebration of King’s legacy in Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on Skyline Drive that featured King himself as its most powerful and significant speaker. King’s words, from a recording of the “Beyond Viet Nam” talk he gave at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 — one year to the day before he was killed — seemed eerily prescient as he warned of what the enormous waste of lives and resources in a pointless war was doing to the prospects for freedom and equality here in the U.S.
“No one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war,” King said in 1967. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Viet Nam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. … 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.”
In the same speech, King noted that he had traveled to African-American communities in America’s inner cities and tried to talk younger Blacks out of rioting and using violence to pursue racial equality, but that the war had got in the way of that task. “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,” he said. “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 Viet Nam? 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.”
The event, which drew about 30 people, also heard from another recorded speaker: Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 in what the IAC and other advocates consider a politically motivated frame-up. A journalist before his incarceration, Abu-Jamal has written a book called Live from Death Row and continues to write, record and release political commentaries. The one played at the January 21 event was taped 10 days earlier. Called “America’s Martin and Martin’s America,” it made the point that the “official” commemorations of King’s legacy had turned him into a harmless African-American icon and ignored the radical implications of King’s actual words and ideas.
“What distinguishes the life and work of King towards his latter days, was his dedication to Black poor folks, a group that seems to be all but forgotten in the years since his passing,” Abu-Jamal said. “While today’s America seems to be on the brink of electing a Black person [as President] (or at least possibly nominating one), the plight of the Black poor could hardly be more perilous. … For them is reserved: the worst of public education the worst housing; brutal treatment by cops; ignored by political leaders (at least until election time rolls around), highest rates of joblessness; the highest incarceration rates — we know this list can go on and on. King Day may be remembered, but the man behind the name is fast disappearing.”
The speakers who appeared “live” at the event expressed similar sentiments. IAC activist Gloria Verdieu said that her group had helped organize a “Martin Luther King/Cesar Chavez Coalition for Justice and Unity” two years earlier “when we documented the militarization of the King and Chavez Day parades.” Calling for a united front of African-American, Latino, Asian-American and indigenous people, Verdieu said, “There’s a time for celebration and festivities, but this Martin Luther King Day is a time for resistance … to unite against racism and imperialism, and for immigrants.”
Verdieu then introduced Border Angels founder Enrique Morones, who opened with a line he’s used in many of his speeches — “We’re all the same race: the human race” — and then talked about his ongoing campaign for immigrants’ rights. “We all need to treat our neighbors as brothers and sisters,” he said. “There’s persecution every day, and we need to stand up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves. Between 4,500 and 10,000 people have died attempting to cross the border since ‘Operation Gatekeeper’ started in 1994. There are 260 million people worldwide without documents. The United States has only 12 million of them.”
Morones said that “Operation Gatekeeper,” the border fence and all the other anti-immigrant measures being put into effect to prevent immigration from Mexico to the U.S. are violations of U.S. treaty obligations. He claimed that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, under which Mexico gave up almost half of its territory to the U.S. (including what is now California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico), guaranteed people on both sides of the border a permanent right “to go back and forth” between the two countries. He announced that on February 2, the anniversary of the signing of this treaty, he is launching his third annual “March for Migrants,” a caravan of cars from San Ysidro to Brownsville, Texas. “To me, Martin Luther King was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things,” Morones said. “All of us can do extraordinary things.”
“We all have dreams,” said Ray Burrell of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), riffing off the title of King’s most famous speech. “It doesn’t matter what color you are. People come here to seek the things they didn’t have back home.” Burrell called upon the people at the event to “participate with local community leaders and activists, register new voters, make sure they know the differences between Democrats and Republicans, independents, Peace and Freedom Party members and whatever, and we must educate.”
A young man named Carlos identified himself as part of a San Diego organization affiliated with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. “I’m just here in solidarity,” he said. “We’re organizing with the people in Mexico. We hope to be part of the coalition.”
The first speaker after King’s recording was played was a young man named Jefferson, who introduced himself as a Los Angeles representative of two organizations with ties to the IAC, the Workers’ World Party and the Troops Out Now Coalition. “King knew he would be murdered,” Jefferson said, “and what turned the system against him was his opposition to the war in Viet Nam and his own government. It’s the same today.” He called the IAC’s event “the real Martin Luther King celebration,” as opposed to the “official” one that included representatives from the FBI and ROTC.
“There are many ways to oppress people, not just bombs and bullets,” Jefferson said. “One day before King was killed, he talked about the way slaveowners pitted slaves against one another. That’s still happening. The biggest threat working people can pose to the system is to united. We have to unite. That’s why King was killed. He knew he couldn’t stop the bombing or the aggressions. We have to speak out against the oppression of Palestine and the exploitation of Africa.”
Alan Woodson, an organizer with a prisoners’ rights organization called All of Us or None, said that when they were first brought to the U.S. as slaves, “Black people were told they couldn’t speak their language or practice their culture. We were given the worst of the meat and learned to like it.” After talking about diabetes and other health hazards that disproportionately affect African-Americans, and mentioning that 60 percent of U.S. food is now bioengineered, he said that there were still 300 African-American political prisoners in the U.S. from the Black liberation struggles of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Linking America’s imperialist policies to its status as the nation with a greater percentage of its people in prison than any other in the world, Woodson said that the reason for all the “tough on crime” legislation putting people in prison for decades for relatively minor offenses is to get around the 13th Amendment and re-enslave African-Americans. “In prisons they are making high-tech and military equipment for 12 to 30 cents a day,” he said. “We’re only 17 percent of the population in this country, but we’re the majority of its prisoners.” (Actually more white people are held in U.S. jails and prisons than any other race, but African-Americans have a higher percentage of their population in prison than any other American racial or ethnic group.)
Tammy Harris and a man identified only as “Brother Kweiku” spoke on behalf of an African nationalist organization called the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement (“Uhuru” means “freedom” in Swahili). Ironically, they showed up at the King Day commemoration and displayed their literature even though a book by their group’s founder, Omali Yeshitela, made clear that he disagreed strongly with King’s attempts in the 1960’s to discourage young African-Americans from staging race riots and preparing for violent resistance to racism.
“The only way we can change is if we get involved,” said Harris. “Everyone here today is here because they want to make a change. If we continue to allow the system to control what we do, we won’t get anywhere. Being part of the world and making a change means being bigger than yourself. We are a grass-roots organization led by the working-class African community. We unite with any organization that understands that self-determination is the highest experience of democracy. If you believe you have the ability to improve your situation, we unite with you. We’ve got to stop what’s happening in our communities.”
Amad Shauf, identified as a minister with the Nation of Islam, also said that “unity, regardless of where we come from,” was one of the two most important qualifications for bringing about social change. “The other important thing is to have your own self-identity. That’s equality. We should have discipline and have the freedom to represent ourselves. Equality is being able to be free to be you, and being able to respect your brither and sister is important. All the things I just talked about are within you.”
Verdieu ended the event with a call for people to join in an effort to build a larger King Day counter-event in 2009, including a march through San Diego’s historic communities of color. To help, please call her at (619) 255-4585.
The complete text of Dr. King's April 4, 1967 "Beyond Viet Nam" speech is posted below.