04 April 2012
On this day in 1968, I was an Army radioteletype operator assigned to a roving battery of 155mm self-propelled howitzers. We'd set up a temporary fire support base in an empty field in Cholon, the Chinese suburb of Saigon, South Vietnam. Tactically it was a miserable site, with tree lines on two sides from which snipers and mortar crews could sight in on us. On the third side was a Buddhist temple, and on the fourth was the only road by which vehicles could enter or exit. Never set up where there is only one escape route. That road was quickly lined with small impromptu shacks whose vendors offered everything from food to ice to pleasures of the flesh. The heat was oppressive and humid.
This was the setting in which we first learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was shocked and horrified. As politically naive as I was, I nevertheless realized that this loss was even more devastating to the black community (and to all Americans) than the murder of Malcolm X, three years earlier. Dr. King was an inspiration for all people of conscience, in his relentless pursuit of civil rights for all, and in his insistence on non-violent protest. In the U.S. and among the troops in Vietnam, many grieved, and some raged. How could this happen?
Knowing what I now know about the American history that doesn't make it into textbooks, I realize that the miracle was that it didn't happen sooner. Venomous racism has always been, and continues to be, a feature of American culture. In the years leading up to Dr. King's death, those who spoke out for racial equality risked their own lives, and many lost them. During the years since, people inspired by King's message have crafted a more tolerant society, but "more" is only a relative term. Thankfully, younger people are less burdened by bigotry than their parents were. But bigotry remains with us.
Keith Olbermann commented this morning that "Forty-four years ago today on the fourth day of the fourth month of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., paid the ultimate sacrifice for dedicating his live to the advancement of civil rights for all Americans. When we look at the circumstances of young Trayvon Martin in Florida, we are reminded that we have many miles to go on this long journey [toward] mutual respect for our fellow citizens and equal treatment under the law." It is a sad commentary on our culture that a common acronym in the black community describes being pulled over or arrested for DWB ~ Driving While Black. For Trayvon Martin and too many like him, racial profiling is only the first step toward a sudden and violent death.
Dr. King thought often and deeply about death. In his I Have a Dream speech (video here, full transcript here) he alluded to his own dying. On another occasion he said this ~ "If physical death is the price I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive." How many of us would face death every day of our lives so that we could appeal to the better side of human nature. How many of us could call our oppressors "brother" and "sister"?
Martin Luther King, Jr., was not a saint. He was an imperfect human being, gifted with a vision, an eloquent voice, and the courage to express one with the other. May his memory ever be kept alive.