During a surreal stay in Memphis last weekend, I had the opportunity to comment on a fine panel on antiwar movements in American history at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians--this year dedicated ironically to examining "Social Justice and American History". The memorable plenary session, chaired by Julian Bond, honoured the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., advocate par excellence of non-violence and passive resistance in the name of changing unjust law.
As U.S. bombs pummeled Baghdad, I wondered what Dr. King would say about Gulf War II, about the wealthy Americans who direct it, and about the millions of dispossessed American citizens who live in their country, but remain in many ways not of it.
I took time to visit the old Lorraine Motel, where King died at an assassin's hand thirty-five years ago. The motel is now part of the larger National Civil Rights Museum. Viewing the exhibits that traced the tortuous road from slavery and segregation, through civil rights and black power, to icons of our era named Michael, Tiger, Venus, and Serena, comprise a poignant experience.
More troubling is the new assassination museum across the street. Given lingering doubt about James Earl Ray's singular guilt for King's death, that building appeared a few years ago--testimony in these postmodern years that anything can be smoothed over, burnished, and transformed into a theme park. The juxtaposition of the two museums jars one's sensibility, a sacrilege to King's memory and the Civil Rights Museum Project on one hand, and a tawdry bow to today's demand for "reality" on the other.
We seem to need to know everything about the rich and famous these days. No less than goods and services, lives are now commodities, for sale to the highest bidder. King himself discovered this toward the end of his life, as FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and other political enemies tried to destroy the civil rights leader by revealing intimate details of his tarnished private life. Hoover even suggested that he would do the United States a favour by committing suicide.
As I pondered meanings of social justice in Memphis, circa 2003, I rode public transport daily to and from my motel in the sticks, downtown to the Cook Convention Center. Each time, I was the only white person on a full bus. Race and class, obviously, remain intertwined adversaries for most African Americans. I recalled that this problem became the reason for Dr. King's trip to Memphis in 1968--to address the plight of local black sanitation workers, and to energize the struggle for the rights of the poor in America and around the world.
Given the incessant war news--a media drum beating at all hours, especially on MSNBC, FOX News, and CNN--I wondered what those African Americans on the bus thought about the Iraqi conflict, or about Dr. King's humane values and dreams. Perhaps they harboured doubts about the war. Or perhaps they saw the military as one of the few avenues available to working-class and un- and underemployed Americans to achieve something better in life. "Be all you can be," the now-hoary ad implores. Working-class and minority America fought the Vietnam War far out of proportion to their numbers. Today, with the draft long gone, the poor-and-patriotic comprise a new type of mercenary force.
There were other thoughts in the days that followed, juxtaposing the social justice theme of the history conference against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's problematic campaign of "shock and awe". For a couple of days, there were problems, and dissension troubled the warmakers, with generals doubting civilians. "Aw shucks" seemed a better description of Coalition problems.
But then the ordnance began falling in earnest, Iraqi soldiers seemed to melt away, and the networks could find nothing but accolades for Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Yet no matter how bellicose, television did not show us the true face of war, on either side. Depicting that agony remained a task for the press, and in the newspapers we saw that bombs do not distinguish between military and civilians, between adults and offspring. Many non-military personnel died, including lots of women and small children.
Indeed, within a day or two social justice delivered at the end of American bayonets seemed for the moment a grotesque invitation to Iraqis to join a long-deferred consumer barbecue, an orgy of instant gratification. Coalition troops stood by as locals helped themselves to rugs and drugs, horses and cars. Here was liberty and freedom, American style. One recalled similar behavior by enraged black Americans on the evening of Dr. King's murder, and on numerous other occasions during the tumultuous 1960s. And one wondered anew, how much really had changed for them, in the ensuing thirty-five years.
So here we sit, cheering Mike Weir to victory at the Master's golf tournament, wondering whether to boo the American national anthem, and worrying lest the Bush administration decides to move its quest for security to Syria, Iran, and/or North Korea. Surely we miss the cold war and the Soviet Union, less as enemy perhaps than as organizing principle. We wonder how, if at all, the Iraq War will contribute to the long-term security of the United States. Will this war, and the violence visited upon Arab peoples, produce in fact new generations of terrorists? What will America's role restoring "order" mean to the Middle East? Is the UN still relevant as a player working to secure collective security and work out global difficulties? Is Canada still in the world?
Or have the weapons of mass destruction and moral support Uncle Sam once accorded brutes like Saddam Hussein now come back to haunt all of us, making liberty and freedom in Iraq an exercise in semantic trickery? We read much of the bravery and heroism of U.S. Army Private Jessica Lynch, POW, now rescued, soon to be (at least) a major TV movie. We wonder what Martin Luther King--were he alive--might say to Private Lynch, a resident of poverty-stricken Palestine WVA.
King might inquire, in ironic tone, why Pvt. Lynch and others like her had gone to war, instead of, say, George W. Bush's twin daughters.
Geoff Smith teaches courses in history and sport sociology at Queen's.