By Whitman Neruda
Because April 4 marked the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, we gathered at the Community Building to listen to excerpts of that watershed moment in America history, a speech that proved prophetic while sealing Dr. King’s fate as a slain martyr. PJALS director Liz Moore moderated a panel discussion composed of Sandy Williams, publisher of the Black Lens news and Pastor Walter Kendricks of Morning Star Baptist Church and president of the Spokane Ministers Fellowship.
King was calling for an expansion of the civil rights movement to include the dismantling of what he called the three evils of American life: militarism, racism and poverty. He called for a moral stance that reached beyond national allegiances and the importance of speaking for the weak and the voiceless, to respond in compassion not just for the soldiers on either side but for those living under the curse of war. The Vietnam war was a symptom of a deeper sickness in American life.
Referencing the liberation movements of the 60’s in Third World countries, he recalled a quote from President John F. Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable.” What we needed, he said, was a “radical revolution of values.” Non-violence is always a choice; “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” is possible to achieve.
The speech triggered bittersweet memories for those of us alive back then and a lively discussion ensued among the 40-50 people. The prevailing sentiment was that his words are painfully true to the current war/terror obsessed state of global politics. But Sandy reminded us that although there have been great strides in civil rights regarding integration the reason racism and war still resonate in American society is because the system, its foundation and structure has not changed.
At this point, depending on your perspective, the discussion either erupted or followed the idea of going where the spirit takes the meeting. People wanted to talk about race and white people’s denial of the presumption of whiteness as universal; of the ways two people can listen someone say the same thing and yet hear two different messages, intentions or attitudes, in this case, it was two people of color reacting to a white woman’s comment.
Pastor Kendricks surprised me when in response to a boy’s comments about the importance of non-violence he said sometimes you have to fight, citing Hitler as an example.
I wanted to interject that Hitler was only made possible because the German people were humiliated economically by the Allies after they lost the first world war. This Euro-Christian-patriarchal mind set is not content to just win, it has to humiliate, destroy, obliterate the “enemy” and it informs American policy to this day. We did it to the Japanese by dropping the first atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We do it in prisons today, on the city streets. I wanted to tie it to Dr. King’s call for a revolution of values. It takes a civilized nation to instruct its warriors to cease once it is clear the “enemy” is wounded and can’t fight back from delivering that final annihilating blow and reach out to begin the reconciliation process.
But the group wanted to talk race and racism particularly the people of color present. I think the one point we agree automatically on is that Spokane is a weird, sometimes problematic place to live for people of color. As a Baby Boomer Chicano I felt frustrated, irritated; I’ve had/heard these conversations/debates/arguments for 50 years and I feel burned out. But then I realized two things…
One, justice is as ongoing process fueled by remembering and envisioning, testimony and witness and each generation has to undergo this process, these type of conversations, to keep the movement alive.
Second, for the first time in the nearly three years I have lived in Spokane I felt safe to vent my anger, radicalism, and distrust of the police, disgust the Christian right-wingers, the Trump supporters, who can’t (or won’t) reconcile their faith with their politics. PJALS has created a respectful climate and space, the expectation of safe engagement with difficult discussions, for those directly impacted by the oppressions and violence of the state. I can think of no other place in town where this could unfold the way it did at the PJALS meeting. For this, the opportunity to be truly heard, I am truly grateful.