On January 24, Iowa State University held its annual birthday celebration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union. Greg Bonett delivered the following speech at the celebration. Bonett is a senior in Electrical Engineering and Physics at Iowa State University. He is a peace activist and a co-editor of the Ames Progressive.
For the last five years I’ve been involved with a group on campus called Time for Peace. Time for Peace is a student and community group created on September 11, 2001, dedicated to the study and practice of the principles of nonviolence that were exemplified by Dr. King..
Martin Luther King was one of the greatest nonviolent leaders in history. Dr. King used the tactics of nonviolence to counter the most significant injustices of his time. King and his movement used direct nonviolent action to counter a violent and oppressive regime marred by racism and poverty. King maintained his commitment to nonviolence even in the face of personal threats and attacks. During a march in a segregated community in Chicago he was hit in the head with a rock; he was stabbed in the chest in New York City; his home in Montgomery was bombed; and finally, in April 1968, King was killed by a sniper’s bullet. But King never raised a hand in violence and remained dedicated to nonviolent resistance. He insisted “social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.”
King applied the tactics of nonviolent action everywhere he saw injustice. And when King looked at the United States’ war in Vietnam or when he looked at poverty in communities throughout our country he saw injustice. He insisted that these injustices could only be overcome by “a true revolution of values,” as Mary said. Explaining that “a true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast between poverty and wealth.”
Today, nearly 40 years after his assassination, have we had the “revolution of values” that King pleaded for? We are building prisons at an increasing rate, filling them with people, many of whom are guilty of little more than being black or poor. We are still a nation more willing to incarcerate than to educate. Our eagerness to invade foreign countries shows we would sooner recognize the poor Iraqi as our enemy, an insurgent or a terrorist, than as our sister or brother as King would have asked of us. We have ignored King’s warning that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
What would King ask of us if he knew that 40 years after his death we live in a country where the unemployment rate for African Americans is twice that of whites? A country where African American men are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white men? Where millions of people are still struggling to meet their most basic needs: decent housing, decent education, decent jobs?
What would he say if he knew our country has embarked on another protracted war in a foreign land? What would he say of the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians that he knew to be children of God, his brothers and sisters?
In 1967, one year to the day before King was assassinated, he asserted that the United States is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” What would he say if he knew that this is still as true today as it was when he said it. What would King say if he knew that this very hall where we’re holding this celebration today — the same hall where King himself stood and spoke in 1960 — was used last March to host Lockheed Martin Day. Here, on the day of the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, this hall was filled with defense contractors flaunting high-tech weaponry and courting ISU students to join their ranks. What would King say to us if he were here today?
I don’t know exactly what King would say, but I do know what he would ask of us. He would ask for action. Nonviolent direct action. He would ask us to march, to protest, to boycott, to strike. He would ask us to endure ridicule, insults, threats, even physical violence and arrest if necessary.
In March of this year there will be a mass protest in the spirit of King, right here on the ISU campus to mark the fifth anniversary of the war. Participants will march to call for an end to the war in Iraq and for a redistribution of our nation’s resources to meet social needs, and I ask all of you to join us.
In 1967, in the wake of race riots in Watts and Detroit, President Johnson, without having addressed the racism, the joblessness, the decaying housing in the inner cities that had led to the riots, responded to the crisis by declaring a national day of prayer. Martin Luther King responded by saying, “As a minister, I take prayer too seriously to use as an excuse for avoiding work and responsibility.” In King’s honor, we should make sure that we don’t use this celebration as an excuse for avoiding the work and responsibility he would ask of us today.