All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born . . . We in the West must support these revolutions.
MLK “Time to Break the Silence” – Speech at Riverside Church April 4 1967
Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, you are too arrogant if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power… and I will place in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name – – be still and know that I am God –
MLK “Why I Am Opposed to the Vietnam War” April 30, 1967 at Ebenezer Baptist
This Monday, the United States celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. day. It is an official holiday when the United States honors, as it should, this great man and his struggle.
While Americans love King’s “I have a dream” speech and frequently repeat his vision that one day people will be “judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin,” there often seems to be little awareness about other elements of his life and struggle, beyond the struggle against Jim Crow and instances of visible discrimination, like separate bathrooms and water fountains that were eventually abolished.
Typically, two important elements of his legacy are either downplayed or outright neglected, elements that towards the end of his life led to his being marginalized and would cause him to face neglect or even hostility in certain quarters before his tragic assassination.
The first was his opposition to the Vietnam war, resulting from his anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views. King clearly saw his struggle as part of a global struggle and emphasized what we might call today intersectionality. He fully believed that Black people in America could not be free until all people are free. This message did not sit well with the establishment, who preferred to highlight his struggle against what was referred to as “petite apartheid”—the overt segregation and discrimination of the South, rather than his biting critique of the entire structure of institutional racism and discrimination in America.
The second oft-neglected element of King’s legacy is his emphasis on nonviolence as a radical commitment to the struggle, flowing out of his Christian faith as well as his understanding of the nature of the struggle of oppressed people. Almost no mention of this is made by most of those who celebrate his legacy. Even the elaborate MLK memorial in Washington, D.C. fails to highlight this aspect of his teaching; it’s as if he merely wanted African Americans to be integrated within the US Armed Forces!
It is curious that these two elements are the ones most relevant to Palestinians, who look to MLK and his legacy for guidance and inspiration.
I recently attended a fundraising event in Pennsylvania honoring MLK at which Marc Lamont Hill spoke. A local rabbi gave a powerful and moving invocation, but no local Imam participated. Maybe it was too uncomfortable and unwelcome to use this event to raise the other, broader issues of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism. This was especially poignant, since Lamont Hill himself lost his position at CNN as a commentator after it was reported that he once tweeted in support of a “free Palestine from the River to the Sea.” If we are to honor the true legacy of MLK, we need to redouble our efforts at intersectionality and work for solidarity across different organizations who are fighting for liberty and against oppression of all people. We need to support Black Lives Matter as well as the social and economic issues raised by racism today. We also need to speak out against Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism and bias.
During the First Intifada, Israelis uprooted ancient olive trees from a Palestinian village (Kharab el Lahim). Later, they replanted the trees at a park in Jerusalem—in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.! When I and others associated with the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence protested this action and brought it to the attention of the King Center in Atlanta, pointing out the irony involved and requesting that the center intervene and refuse this so-called “honor” that essentially made them complicit in the Israeli practices, they were silent and refused to comment. We were told that they might be afraid of offending some of their donors. Whatever the case, it is a fact that some otherwise liberal Jewish donors have not hesitated to use their credibility, support for civil rights, and their influence among progressives to discourage African American activists from openly championing Palestinian causes, from supporting BDS or challenging Israeli apartheid policies. Worse yet, some activists preemptively refrain from such support for fear of alienating potential donors, without even being asked to do so. It is doubly dangerous when they attribute such fears to the anticipated reaction of the entire Jewish community and not just to Zionist donors.
The second element is equally vital. Palestinians have adopted a variety of nonviolent tactics in their struggle, including BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions). Palestinian appeals to international tribunals, such as the International Court of Justice, is another form of nonviolent activism that MLK would have favored. While all oppressed people have the legal right to resort to any form of resistance, including armed struggle, it is very wise for Palestinians to concentrate on nonviolent methods and tactics. FOSNA stands with Palestinian Christians and others who choose the path of radical, nonviolent activism in opposing Israeli policies. In reality, those who oppose BDS actually want NO resistance at all and want Palestinians to simply submit to the ongoing oppression of Israeli apartheid.
If King were alive today, he would no doubt rise against Israeli militarism and its oppression of the Palestinians. He would be willing to risk a loss of support and funding and face false accusations of antisemitism that would undoubtedly be hurled at him as a result.