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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 oppression:

“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 justice.”

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 4th, 1968.

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.

www.healthcare-NOW.org; Please do write or call if you want to help end the war and get healthcare for everybody. info@healthcare-now.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. Click here to contact Ms. Clement and Healthcare-NOW.

Click here to read any of the articles in this special BC series on Single-Payer Healthcare.

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January 18, 2007
Issue 213

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