Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, a day before his assassination. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly)
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So much has changed since that hot day in August 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his famous words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A black family lives in the White House and official segregation is a thing of the past. Napalm no longer falls on the homes and people of Vietnam and the president of that country has just visited the United States in order to seek “a new relationship.”
A healthcare law has been passed that guarantees medical services to many millions who, fifty years ago, were entirely outside the system. Gays were then hiding their sexuality everywhere—the Stonewall riots were six years away—and now the Supreme Court has recognized that same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits. Only the year before, Rachel Carson had published her groundbreaking ecological classic Silent Spring, then one solitary book. Today, there is a vigorous movement in the land and across the Earth dedicated to stopping the extinction of our planet.
In 1963, nuclear destruction threatened our species every minute of the day and now, despite the proliferation of such weaponry to new nations, we do not feel that tomorrow is likely to bring 10,000 Hiroshimas raining down on humanity.
So much has changed—and yet so little.
The placards raised in last week’s commemorative march on Washington told exactly that story: calls for ending the drone wars in foreign lands; demands for jobs and equality; protests against mass incarceration, restrictions on the right to an abortion, cuts to education, assaults upon the workers of America, and the exploitation and persecution of immigrants; warnings about the state-by-state spread of voter suppression laws. And chants filling the air, rising above multiple images of Trayvon Martin, denouncing gun violence and clamoring for banks to be taxed. Challenges to us all to occupy every space available and return the country to the people.
Yes, so much has changed—and yet so little.
In my own life, as well.
Words for an Assassination Moment
I wasn’t able to attend last week’s march, but I certainly would have, if events of a personal nature hadn’t interfered. It was just a matter of getting in a car with my wife, Angélica, and driving four hours from our home in Durham, North Carolina.
Fifty years ago, that would have been impossible. We were living in distant Chile and didn’t even know that a march on Washington was taking place. I was 21 years old at the time and, like so many of my generation, entangled in the struggle to liberate Latin America. The speech by King that was to influence my life so deeply did not even register with me.
What I can remember with ferocious precision, however, is the place, the date, and even the hour when, five years later, I had occasion to listen for the first time to those “I have a dream” words, heard the incantations of that melodious baritone, that emotional certainty of victory. I can remember the occasion so clearly because it happened to be April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was killed, and ever since, his dream and his death have been grievously conjoined in my mind as they still are, almost half a century later.
I recall how I was sitting with Angélica and our 1-year-old child, Rodrigo, in a living room high up in the hills of Berkeley, the university town in California. We had arrived from Chile barely a week earlier. Our hosts, an American family who generously offered us temporary lodgings while our apartment was being readied, had switched on the television. We all solemnly watched the nightly news, probably delivered by Walter Cronkite, the famed CBS anchorman. And there it was, the murder of Martin Luther King in that Memphis hotel, and then came the first reports of riots all over America and, finally, a long excerpt from his “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was only then, I think, that I began to realize who Martin Luther King had been, what we had lost with his departure from this world, the legend he was becoming before my very eyes. In later years, I would often return to that speech and would, on each occasion, hew from its mountain of meanings a different rock upon which to stand and understand the world.
Beyond my amazement at King’s eloquence, my immediate reaction was not so much to be inspired as to be puzzled, close to despair. After all, the slaying of this man of peace was answered not by a pledge to persevere in his legacy, but by furious uprisings in the slums of black America. The disenfranchised were avenging their dead leader by burning down the ghettos in which they felt themselves imprisoned and impoverished, using the fire this time to proclaim that the non-violence King had advocated was useless, that the only way to end inequity in this world was through the barrel of a gun, that the only way to make the powerful pay attention was to scare the hell out of them.
King’s assassination, therefore, savagely brought up a question that was already bedeviling me—and so many other activists—in the late 1960s: What was the best method to achieve radical change? Could we picture a rebellion in the way that Martin Luther King had envisioned it, without drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred, without treating our adversaries as they had treated us? Or did the road into the palace of justice and the bright day of brotherhood inevitably lead through fields of violence? Was violence truly the unavoidable midwife of revolution?
Martin Luther King and the Dream of a Revolutionary Chile
These were questions that, back in Chile, I would soon be forced to answer, not through cloudy theoretical musings, but while immersed in the day-to-day reality of history-in-the-making. I’m talking about the years after 1970 when Salvador Allende was elected Chile’s president and we became the first country to try to build socialism through peaceful means. Allende’s vision of social change, elaborated over decades of struggle and thought, was similar to King’s, even though they came from very different political and cultural traditions.
Allende, for instance, was not at all religious and would not have agreed with King that physical force must be met with soul force. He favored instead the force of social organizing. At a time when many in Latin America were still dazzled by the armed struggle proposed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, however, it was Allende’s singular accomplishment to imagine the two quests of our era to be inextricably connected: the quest by the dispossessed of this Earth for more democracy as well as civil freedoms, and the parallel quest for social justice and economic empowerment.
Unfortunately, it was Allende’s fate to echo King’s. Three years after King’s death in Memphis, it was Allende’s choice to die in the midst of a Washington-backed military coup against his democratic government in the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile.
Yes, on the first 9/11—September 11, 1973—almost ten years to the day since King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Allende chose to die defending his own dream, promising us, in his last speech, that sooner, not later, más temprano que tarde, a day would come when the free men and women of Chile would walk through las amplias alamedas, the great avenues full of trees, toward a better society.
It was in the immediate aftermath of that terrible defeat, as we watched the powerful of Chile impose upon us the terror that we had not wanted to visit upon them, it was then, as our nonviolence was met with executions and torture and disappearances, it was only then, after that military coup, that I first began to seriously commune with Martin Luther King, that his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial came back to haunt me. It was as I left Chile and headed, with wife and child, into an exile lasting many years that King’s voice and message began to filter fully, word by word, into my life.
If ever there were a situation where violence could be justified, it would have been against the military junta in Chile led by Augusto Pinochet. He and his generals had overthrown a constitutional government and were now murdering, torturing, imprisoning, and persecuting citizens whose radical sin had been to imagine a world where you would not need to massacre your opponents in order to allow the waters of justice to flow.
The Dogs of Mississippi and Valparaiso
And yet, very wisely, almost instinctively, the Chilean resistance embraced a different route: slowly, resolutely, dangerously taking over every possible inch of public space in the country, isolating the dictatorship inside and outside our nation, making Chile ungovernable through civil disobedience. It was not entirely different from the strategy that the civil rights movement had espoused in the United States; and, indeed, I never felt closer to Martin Luther King than during the seventeen years it took us to free Chile of the dictatorship.
His words to the militants who thronged to Washington in 1963, demanding that they not lose faith, resonated with me, comforted my sad heart. He was speaking prophetically to me, to us, when he said, “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells.”
He was speaking to us, to me, when he thundered, “Some of you come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering.” He understood that more difficult than going to your first protest was awakening the following morning and heading for the next protest, and then the one after, engaging, that is, in the daily grind of small acts that can lead to large and lethal consequences.
The sheriffs and dogs of Alabama and Mississippi were alive and well in the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso, and so was the spirit that had encouraged defenseless men, women, and children to be mowed down, beaten, bombed, harassed, and yet continue to confront their oppressors with the only weapons available to them: the suffering of their bodies and the conviction that nothing could make them turn back.
Like the blacks in the United States, so in Chile we sang in the streets of the cities that had been stolen from us. Not spirituals, for every land has its own songs. In Chile we sang, over and over, the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the hope that a day would come when all men would be brothers.
Why were we singing? To give ourselves courage, of course, but not only that. In Chile, we sang and stood against the hoses and tear gas and truncheons, because we knew that somebody else was watching. In this, we were also following in the media-savvy footsteps of Martin Luther King. After all, that mismatched confrontation between a police state and the people was being photographed or filmed and transmitted to other eyes. In the deep south of the United States, the audience was the majority of the American people; while in that other struggle years later in the deeper south of Chile, the daily spectacle of peaceful men and women being repressed by the agents of terror targeted national and international forces whose support Pinochet and his dependent third world dictatorship needed in order to survive.
The tactic worked because we understood, as Gandhi and King had before us, that our adversaries could be influenced and shamed by public opinion, and could in this fashion eventually be compelled to relinquish power. That is how segregation was defeated in the South; that is how the Chilean people beat Pinochet in a plebiscite in 1988 that led to democracy in 1990; that is the story of the downfall of tyrannies around the world, more than ever today, from the streets of Burma to the cities of the Arab Spring.
King in the Age of Surveillance
And what of this moment? When I return to that speech I first heard forty-five years ago, the very day King died, is there still a message for me, for us, something we need to hear again as if we were listening to those words for the first time?
What would Martin Luther King say if he could return to contemplate what his country has become since his death? What if he could see how the terror and slaughter brought to bear upon New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, had turned his people into a fearful, vengeful nation, ready to stop dreaming, ready to abridge their own freedoms in order to be secure? What if he could see how that obsession with security has fed espionage services and a military-industrial complex run amok?
What would he say if he could observe how that fear was manipulated in order to justify the invasion and occupation of a foreign land against the will of its people? How would he react to the newest laws disenfranchising the very citizens he fought to bring to the voting booths? What sorrow would have gripped his heart as he watched the rich thrive and the poor be ever more neglected and despised, as he observed the growing abyss between the one percent and the rest of the country, not to speak of the power of money to intervene and intercede and decide?
What words would he have used to denounce the way the government surveillance he was under is now commonplace and pervasive, potentially targeting anyone in the United States who happens to own a phone or use e-mail? Wouldn’t he tell those who oppose these policies and institutions inside and outside the United States to stand up and be counted, to march ahead, and not ever to wallow in the valley of despair?
That’s my belief. That he would repeat some of the words he delivered on that now-distant day in the shadow of the statue of Abraham Lincoln. My guess is that he would once again affirm his faith in the potential of his country. He would undoubtedly point out that his dream remained rooted in an American dream which, in spite of all the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, was still alive; that his nation still had the ability to rise up and live out the true meaning of its original creed, summed up in the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
Let us hope that his faith in us was and still is on the mark. Let us hope and pray, for his sake and ours, that his faith in his own country was not misplaced and that fifty years later his compatriots will once again listen to his fierce yet gentle voice calling on them from beyond death and beyond fear, calling on all of us, here and abroad, to stand together for freedom and justice in our time.
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