18 January 2021

Martin Luther King’s legacy
of nonviolence and Trump’s
threatening violence today

Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day in the US … a feature in ‘The Irish Times’ 40 years ago

Patrick Comerford

Today is being marked in the US as Martin Luther King Jr Day, a federal holiday on the third Monday of January each year, celebrating the life and achievements of the civil rights leader, the Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King’s actual birthday was on 15 January 1929, and he was murdered on 4 June 1968. But on Martin Luther King Day today, it is worth considering the choices the US faces this week.

Forty years ago, on 3 January 1981, in a series in The Irish Times on ‘The Spell of the Sixties,’ I wrote a full-page feature for the front page of the Saturday supplement ‘Martin Luther King and the End of a Dream.’

Three years later, when it came to writing my first book, Do You Want to Die for NATO?, I headed chapters with quotations from Martin Luther King on nonviolence and the arms race.

King’s march on Washington on 28 August 1963 is in sharp contrast with Trump’s march on the Capitol the week before last.

On that August day almost 60 years ago, Martin Luther King led more than 200,000 people in a march on Washington, not to overturn democracy, but to extend democratic rights to all Americans, including jobs and freedom.

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King called on Americans ‘to sit down together at the table of brotherhood’ and meet our promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

In contrast, Trump spoke in front of the White House, calling on Mike Pence to overturn the democratic will of the people, and calling on his own followers to fight. He told them ‘you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.’

And he told them, ‘We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.’

In yet another display of his pathological, if not congenetial, compulsion to exagerrate and lie, Trump claimed his crowd was larger in numbers than those who marched on Washington with Martin Lutger King.

He spoke of the US today in degrading language, comparing it with a ‘third world country’ and ‘a communist country.’ He mocked people’s weight, skin colour and background, mocked the members of the supreme court and mocked state governors and legislatures.

As he addressed the mob in an incoherent and rambling address, they included neo-nazis and members of far-right and white supremacist militias as he spoke of them as ‘amazing patriots’ and promised them, ‘The best is yet to come.’

And so, it is egregious hypocrisy that on Friday Trump could say Martin Luther King ‘exemplified the quintessential American belief that we will leave a brighter, more prosperous future for our children.’ He spoke of King as ‘a giant of the civil rights movement whose nonviolent resistance to the injustices of his era – racial segregation, employment discrimination, and the denial of the right to vote – enlightened our Nation and the world.’

Has any American president been so crass, so vulgar, so bigoted, so smug and so self-righteous?

He recalled how, ‘In the face of tumult and upheaval, Dr King reminded us to always meet anger with compassion in order to truly “heal the hurts, right the wrongs and change society”.’

He spoke of the ‘spirit of forgiveness’ and the need ‘to bind the wounds of past injustice by lifting up one another regardless of race, gender, creed, or religion, and rising to the first principles enshrined in our founding documents.’

He claimed he was committed to ‘upholding’ King’s ‘legacy and meeting our sacred obligation to protect the unalienable rights of all Americans.’

As I read Trump’s words, I wondered what the US faces this week as Joe Biden is inaugurated as President of the United States on Wednesday, and what legacy it will be left with after Trump goes.

I concluded my feature in The Irish Times 40 years ago in January 1980:

‘For King, nonviolence was no mere tactic, it was a necessary form of action, of sacrificial love, in a world of increasing hatred and violence. The question is not so much was he a failure of the ’60s, but whether he can be a success in the ’80s before it is too late.

“In our day, the choice is either nonviolence or non-existence”.’

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