On April 30, 1967, I found myself at a big anti-war demonstration in New York’s Central Park. As the event wound down a bunch of us left the park, walked over to Broadway, then all the way uptown to a neighborhood known as Morningside Heights where we then squeezed ourselves into a monumental edifice known then and now as Riverside Church. We were there to listen to a speech delivered by Martin Luther King which as he began his address we realized that he was going to say something remarkable, vibrant and new.
This speech marked a momentous turning-point in the growing public resistance to the Viet Nam War. The fighting in Southeast Asia had already produced nearly 20,000 casualties but the worst still lay ahead, particularly in 1968 after Tet; a majority of the public and certainly the media still supported the idea that a gradual troop withdrawal might succeed; Gene McCarthy’s anti-war Presidential campaign was six months’ away; Lyndon Johnson had not yet announced that he wouldn’t seek another term.
When King said he was going to break publicly with Johnson and the Democratic Party over Viet Nam, many people, including other civil rights leaders, denounced his decision as an unfortunate and untimely challenge against the ally whose ability to push civil rights legislation through Congress had resulted in dramatic legal changes to the status of African-Americans and their relationship to whites. Nevertheless, King felt he had no choice but to move from the politics of racial equality to the politics of peace, because what made racial inequality so objectionable was the degree to which legal barriers to African-American racial equality resulted in even greater barriers against economic equality as well. As he said in his remarks, “it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor.”
I sometimes wonder what might have happened had King not been gunned down a year later and instead been able to unite the civil rights and anti-war movements into a successful political effort for serious social and economic change. But there’s no value in thinking about what might have been; what we need to do is think about what is, and how Dr. King’s words can help us understand what we now need to do. And here is what King said which brings his views from fifty years ago into focus today: “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
In the current climate it’s simple and easy to point an accusatory finger at our government; after all we have a President who promotes and endorses violence every chance he gets. And a day doesn’t go by without him bragging about how he’s going to increase military spending while gutting every social program he can.
But when Barack Obama took office in 2009 we had troops stationed in more than 1,000 locations outside the United States. When he left office in 2016 that number hadn’t changed. In his first year alone he approved more drone strikes than his predecessor allowed in his entire eight years. Meanwhile, every time there was a mass shooting he went on television and cried and cried and cried.
My public health friends who do research on gun violence never forget to remind us that the reason we suffer more than 120,000 gun injuries each year is because we own so many guns. But if you think there’s no connection between the existence of 300 million privately-owned firearms and what we lavish on our military, think again. In 2015 the world spent $1.6 trillion on military goods and services, of which we spent nearly 40% of that figure all by ourselves.
Want to reduce gun violence? Take seriously what Dr. King preached in 1967 and ask where the real cause of this violence lies.