For almost 40 years now, people have talked about
the King legacy, sometimes coming to radically different conclusions.
One would hope that, this week as we continue to read about and
reflect on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., there will be continuing
reflection and support for two of his basic commitments –
stopping the war/ working for peace and providing for the human
rights of people in the United States and around the world, particularly
healthcare for all. As he called on us to pay attention to healthcare,
his words cried out about the conditions of people who are suffering
pain, degradation, denials, rejections and even death caused by
this greedy health industrial, profit-driven system! He said:
"Of ALL the forms of inequality, injustice
in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."
He also said, in his hugely unpopular Riverside Church
speech against the Viet Nam war, all wars and all imperialism and
“A nation that continues year after year to
spend more money on military defense than on programs of social
uplift is a nation approaching spiritual death.”
Go back and read that speech
on last week’s Black Commentator if you missed it. King said,
"I come to this magnificent house of worship because my conscience
leaves me no other choice…”A time comes when silence
is betrayal. That time has come.”
He went on to say, “Even when pressed by the
demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing
their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor
does the human spirit move without difficulty against all the apathy
of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and within the
surrounding community…but we must move on.”
I met Dr. King and became a part of his staff that
year, 1967, – after the Riverside Speech. It was a wonderful
opportunity for a young white woman, and I learned so much as a
result. It was a constant learning curve and it continued throughout
my whole life.
Dr. King was under attack by the New York Times and
all national media, and by the left and the right nationwide.
He had the audacity to challenge his own government,
the regime of Lyndon Johnson, and the Pentagon policies continuing
to pour more troops into Vietnam – a war that could not be
won, a war for oil (surprise) which President Eisenhower had declared
two administrations before.
President Eisenhower noted that it was in the U.S.
interest (sound familiar?) to control those oil and other mineral
resources rather than allowing them to be controlled by the Asians
who were living on those resources. They were seen as financial
competitors and competitors in the Cold War. So naturally, when
Dr. King challenged the premise of that war, he was quickly declared
an enemy of the United States.
During the coming three or four years after his death,
and actually continuing to the present day, many who made such a
challenge or declared their right and duty to dissent against this
government’s policies were declared enemies. Many excellent
community organizers who had organized local Black organizations
to challenge oppression in their communities went to jail, or were
sent into exile or were assassinated. If they were non-profit community
organizations, they sometimes lost their tax-exemptions or they
were burned down or charged with various spurious violations and
driven out of business.
Militant Chicano and Puerto Rican organizations and
the American Indian Movement leaders were also vilified and destroyed.
This was all a part of the Cointelpro (counter-intelligence program)
designed to destroy any dissent to government policies and any organizing
that might tend to call for a revolutionary change in values away
from war and dominance.
Sound familiar? Doesn’t this sound like the
morning news report? A government out of control – with visions
of an imperialist, neo-colonial takeover of a large and wealthy
(think oil) part of the world to try to gain a foothold in that
region. A government determined to take over the central, formerly
most powerful and most secular country in the Middle East and eventually
controlling its neighbors all over the Middle East. Our government
has stepped into the morass of religious and regional conflicts
with no knowledge of and no sensitivity to those ancient rivalries.
And no business getting in the middle of them.
Our government is again building huge military bases
in that country (for future use) and spending hundreds of billions
of dollars of our tax-payer money for a massive lie. This is a war
that is making enemies for many generations of our children and
grandchildren and providing no concrete benefit to our own people.
Truthfully, our government is choosing the death and
dismemberment of our children rather than diplomacy in a foreign
land for purposes of greed and dominance of the powerful. Finally,
our government has the arrogance to get in the middle of a civil
war in another country, a war we don’t understand and in which
we have no business taking sides. The devastation to that country
and to our own country will probably last for fifty years or more.
Certainly, the reputation of the United States will suffer irreparable
harm. As Dr. King said.
Finally, the most compelling comparison of these two
conflicts, Viet Nam and Iraq, is the continuing escalation of the
war sending more and more troops into this frightening quagmire
to be maimed or killed – into a war that cannot be won for
a cause that is unjust. A friend of mine from the Viet Nam war,
an African American whose parents and grandparents were well-to-do
land owners in Mississippi, told me that he went to that war naively,
not having participated in anything political, including the Civil
Rights Movement. He said, “At some point, as a Sergeant, and
seeing the men I was responsible for dying all around me on a hill
in Viet Nam, the stark reality hit me. I thought to myself, “What
am I doing here? What is this about? I do not belong here.”
From the statistics we hear from every branch of the
service, many of the U.S. troops today are coming to the same conclusion.
Dr. King spoke truth to power knowing that he would
be rebuked and scorned for doing so, even among some of his own
people. He did not mince words. He was gentle when he talked to
his own staff, but you could see the pain in his face. Some of the
staff of SCLC, the organization that he served as President, complained
that the money was drying up because of his outspoken challenge
to the government – there was no longer an outpouring of financial
support for our work. Others complained that, while he was going
around making speeches, they were the people who were going to jail
and having acid thrown in their faces in segregated swimming pools.
The right wing demanded that he “tend to his
own knitting” – that he stick to the Civil Rights Movement
and keep his nose out of the politics of the war. Many people in
his own organization agreed. But he countered, saying this war and
the motives behind it are as important to us as voting rights. And
he continued to call for a revolution of values.
He was compelled to speak.
He said, “The war in Viet Nam is but a symptom
of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore
this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing “clergy
and laity concerned” committees for the next generation. They
will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned
about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these
and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end -- unless
there is a significant and profound change.”
At our meeting in 1967, he taught our staff about
Viet Nam. He taught us history – Ho Chi Minh had come to the
United States after World War II to try to get help. Ho asked President
Franklin Roosevelt to help him lead his people to victory against
French colonialism or to get the French to leave Indo China, to
get their foot off the necks of the Vietnamese people and to allow
all of those nations to be free. Sadly, President Roosevelt sent
him away with no support at all.
Then Ho Chi Minh went to China and sought help. He
got it. The Viet Nam conflict and the U.S. involvement in it after
the French left, was a result – and finally the end of the
Viet Nam war and the sovereignty of the Vietnamese people came,
after King’s death, in spite of the superior weaponry and
wealth of our government and the deaths of 57,000 of our troops
as well as 1 million combatants and 5 million Viet Nam civilians.
King taught us the history that we had been denied
in our schools.
Then he talked about the growing opposition to his
message and said, “How could I be a person who was awarded
the Nobel Peace Price and not speak out against this war?”
He had a message he had to deliver. He was compelled by his own
conscience and his own analysis of the world wide depth of oppression
being delivered by his own country. He said “What can they
do to us?” “They may kill us, but we, and he motioned
around the room, “we will continue to spend our lives for
Then he did a most memorable thing. He moved closer
to the center of the room and drew his foot across the floor and
said, “We have a choice. We can choose to stand for justice
or we can stand with the oppressors.” He stepped to one side
of the line and said, “We choose to stand on the side of justice!”
That is all I remember of that staff meeting a few
months before he was killed, but it is burned in my memory –
and it has been burned in my life’s focus ever since. Stand
for justice! A mandate! As a young white woman I was privileged
to be a part of that movement. Working in that movement and the
movements that have engaged us ever since has been a broad learning
curve for me – every day challenging me to try to be worthy
of the work that had to be done, the challenges that had to be faced.
That is why, when we at Healthcare-NOW call for national
healthcare and an end to the war, I realize every day that the inspiration
for this mobilization is coming from way back – from the inspiration
of Dr. Martin Luther King and even more importantly from the thousands
and thousands of people who took on the horrors of segregation and
discrimination before and after his rise and his assassination.
We look to the stories of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria
Gray, Septima Clark, C. T. Vivian, and the thousands of others whose
names may not have made the papers but who were the life-blood of
that movement and who inspired the continuing struggle for justice.
Congressman John Conyers was talking about this period
at our national strategy meeting after the election to move forward
with our campaign for H.R. 676, a national healthcare system in
this country that will provide quality healthcare for every resident.
He reminded us that those of us who come from a Civil Rights history
have a special belief and a special knowledge that we can, in fact,
win something so large. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
We are the ones who can make it happen.
From now until April, we must call on Speaker Nancy
Pelosi and Congressman Charles Rangel to hold hearings on the United
States National Health Insurance Act, H.R. 676. We want these hearings
to be held in April. This is the month of the anniversary of Dr.
King’s famous Riverside Church sermon on April 4th, 1967,
and a year later, his assassination on the very same day, April
The United States National Health Insurance Act, H.R.
676, provides for a national single payer healthcare system that
will serve us all with quality healthcare. That term single-payer
says it all. It will be publicly funded (no insurance companies
involved), and it will be privately delivered. Because Congressman
Conyers is such a seasoned warrior, who started out as a freshman
novice, a student of the Civil Rights Movement – one of the
first ever Black members of Congress since Reconstruction, the bill
he wrote is a brilliant testament to human rights.
Conyers has produced the best bill to hit the Congress
since the Social Security and Medicare legislation. And we believe,
as a result of the changeover in the Congress in November and the
clear mandate from the voters, that we have a better possibility
of getting that national healthcare we deserve than we have had
in 50 years. You can help us make it happen. It will not happen
without a huge effort on our part!
We also call for the war against Iraq to end now.
We insist that this war be wound down. Even if Congress does what
it should do NOW and refuses to continue funding any escalation
or continuance of this disastrous war, it will take months to wind
it down and to get our folks back home out of harm’s way.
Then our government must respond to its moral and
legal obligation to rebuilding and help the Iraqis pick up the pieces
of their country which we destroyed. It is not necessary to have
a peace dividend or a transfer of that war money to domestic human
needs in order to have a fully paid-for healthcare system for all
in this country. We can pay for that by creating a single payer
system, i.e., taking away the excessive profits, lobbying costs,
advertising and high CEO salaries of the insurance companies and
forcing the drug companies to negotiate the prices. But we will
have to fight to make it happen. It is demonic that people should
be doing without when there is so much money and so many resources
available to provide all of the human rights of all of the people
– housing, job programs, and the recreation of a livable infrastructure
including the environment. It is, as Dr. King called it, a revolution
of values. NOW is the time to move on it. We can’t afford
to spend any more lives and any more of our capital on this wrong-headed
and evil adventure.
April is our goal. Call for hearings on H.R.676, Healthcare
for All in Congress in April. Congress will hold these hearings
if we make them do it. That is the mindset that came out of the
Civil Rights ethos. We are the ones we have been waiting for. This
is our job as citizens.
At the same time, we should call for a withdrawal
from Iraq in April – no later. Congress will do it only if
we make them do it. Even though the voters were clear, Congress
is only now slowly getting the message. The funding for this war
must be discontinued. Congress is the only entity that can do that.
Dr King said, “America, the richest and most
powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution
of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent
us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace
will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to
keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands
until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”
Whatever happens in April, we will not have lost anything
for trying. We will have continued to build the movement that must
be built. And we will not stop. There is no turning back.
We have to be escalating and megaphoning messengers.
That is what Dr. King and thousands of civil rights fighters were
during their day. We have to speak truth to power, to Congress,
and to the world. Maybe the hardest part is to speak, with wisdom
and power to our own families and friends.
To join us, write to Healthcare-NOW, 339 Lafayette
St, NYC 10012, call toll free 1-800-453-1305.
Please do write or call if you want to help end the war and get
healthcare for everybody. firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, let us
know if you would like a copy of the seven minute video of Congressman
John Conyers talking about his experiences with Dr. King and his
commitment to national healthcare.
Marilyn Clement, National Coordinator, Healthcare-NOW.
here to contact Ms. Clement and Healthcare-NOW.
here to read any of the articles in this special BC
series on Single-Payer Healthcare.