Martin Luther King: Still a Prophet for Our Time Print

From Fr. Louis Vitale in the Lompoc Prison, California

Dear Friends and Family--HAPPY MLK DAY, 2011, from Lompoc FCI

Martin Luther King's writings and speeches all echo the idea that Nonviolence has not been tried and found wanting, and Violence is continually tried and found ever more wanting......The good news this day is that Nonviolence is beginning to be tried! Oh, that we may keep up the nonviolent spirit of Martin. Today is the Day!!!MLK
It is strange to celebrate this day of liberation in such a place of imprisonment. I am still haunted by the discussion I had with some Black activists at the L.A. Press Club during Nixon's Watergate demise. They were discussing Nixon's plan to build concentration camps for young activists (notably of "color".)  I told them they were going too far (paranoia).  Now I am living in one of those institutions. And, I see the reality all around me...

When shall we truly Overcome Racism and Oppression???   King gave his life. Are we willing to give ours?


Michael David Omondi, “my friend and partner in Civil Disobedience and its consequences," is. We witnessed that as he threw himself over the fence at Ft. Benning, and continues to share it in the Federal containment system, now threatening to deport him to the continent he loves...

Some time ago I wrote a reflection comparing the King of "I Have a Dream" to his last Speech re: the Vietnam War.  It is posted on the Pace e Bene website, and it is reprinted here for your continued reflection on this prophetic day.  Pace e Bene--Louie

The following reflection on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was written in 2008 on Dr. King’s birthday by Friar Louie Vitale, OFM while he was incarcerated in the Imperial County Jail following a nonviolent witness at Ft. Huachuca in Arizona calling for an end to torture training. You can write to Louie at: Louis John Vitale, #25803-048, FCI Lompoc, 3600 Guard Rd., Lompoc, CA 93436

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++



Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Still A Prophet For Our Time



By Louie Vitale, OFM


Two years ago at this time, I was in a Georgia jail. I could not help but remember having lived in southern Georgia (Valdosta) while training with the U.S. Air Force in 1956. It was very shocking to me to see the overt signs of racism. A close friend in the squadron could not meet us in town—he was denied access and subject to segregation in Valdosta. He was an outstanding officer and effective crew member.

I can still remember the day we took off in two different planes to practice intercepts on each other.  We were notified that the other crew was not available. I did notice a spume of dark black smoke.  Yes, our two companions had crashed on take off. I never have been able to get over his zeal to do his all to defend our country and yet he and his family were denied housing, restaurant seats, even directed to “colored” bathrooms and water fountains. He also had a flyer placed on his windshield—“Vote for Lester Maddox,” with an axe handle in hand, Maddox’s logo.

Yes, we have come a long way since that era – but have Dr. King’s deeper dreams been realized? The local Imperial Valley newspaper today did look back 40 years and asked “have we really achieved the depths of his vision, especially in the latter days of his life: true equality for all peoples?”

In 2006, the racial inequities were obvious in the Georgia jails that I was in. The vast majority of people that are incarcerated are African Americans. Racial bias is patent. Sentences given take away the lives of the youth. This year in Florence, Arizona, where some 3,000 of 3,700 prisoners were Mexican also raised many questions—was the segregation of southern Georgia any match for the wall on the US-Mexico border?

Martin Luther King shared with Cesar Chavez the vision and goal of a multi-racial and multi-cultural society where power, responsibility, visions and burdens are shared. Echoing Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, “It’s that filthy, rotten system.” King challenged a Capitalism that brings about great inequalities. The gap between the very rich and the poor is extreme, the poor fight our wars—giving their lives and devastating the lives and lands of the poor of the world.

Yes, after the idyllic “I Have a Dream” speech, whose remembering on this holiday evokes an image of children of all races walking hand in hand to live lives together, <and of> opportunity & abundance, King later led his marches through the cities of the North. There the fire hoses were unfurled, the dogs unleashed.

I was in Chicago the summer of 1965 as a graduate student, living with the Franciscan friars on the South Side. We went to Allen Chapel and listened to Dr. King preach about “Dives and Lazarus” – a message of great compassion. It was the ingredient for a system that this prophet advocated to replace runaway capitalism.  But on Monday as they marched in the streets King testified that these streets were meaner than in the South—fire hoses, impaled marchers on trees, walls and asphalt. Dogs were unleashed on seasoned bearers of nonviolence. Children were under attack, and even Catholic sisters in their religious habits, accompanying the protestors, claimed to have bricks thrown at them by their former parochial school students.

Yes, Dr. King faced a tougher world after the great peoples’ march in 1963, as he reached hard-core impoverished workers in the South and in the North. He realized we needed a “revolution of values,” based on compassion and justice for all. Yes, he planned to go back to the U.S. Capitol, but not for “a beautiful day” to join hands, but also for an expression of truth. Yes, a million activists who would stay until justice was won.

But something even deeper had radically affected King.  The Vietnam War was fought by the poor of the ghettoes against the poor of Asia. For King it was a turning moment – a “teshuva” – he had an urgent message to bear to our world.

We are aware that we are trapped in the same unrestrained madness with its staggering impact on our country and the terrible devastation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Some estimates are they have lost as high as a million lives—largely children, and the devastation of two countries not seen since the war of which King spoke at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, a year before his death. His words were truly prophetic at that time, perhaps he can once again challenge us today. [Ed. Note: King’s speech at Riverside Church is entitled Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam, and all quotes in the remaining paragraphs are from that speech.

I recall the first time I listened to this memorable speech how startling it struck me. As I reread it this week, I realize that very few proper noun changes would update his message for today’s pulpit. Prophetic voices never die, and still bear the force to change history. Martin had just one year to the day to bear the prophet’s mantle. But his prophetic nonviolence continues to impact the world. The assassin’s bullet found its way to stifle his actions of nonviolence and silence his denouncement of the war. But we cannot afford to allow that bullet to stifle his prophecy for our times.

Dr. King shocked many when he spoke out so forcefully and cogently against the Vietnam War. Even his own colleagues felt he could have a negative impact on the Civil Rights campaigns. But Martin had come to see that poverty was a great part of injustice – and saw that the Vietnam War had a major impact on the poor.

Further, he realized that the bombing was a crucifixion of the poor of Vietnam—in fact he insisted that war inevitably impacts the poor of the world. He stated, “So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

King was a disciple of Gandhi. He was a student and an activist practitioner of nonviolence. But he fount it very hard at that time to speak out against the violence advocated by activists in our own country.  After experiencing the ghettos of the North and trying to convince those who were using violence to attempt to bring about social change to use nonviolent means, he noticed that “They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive violence to solve its problems, to bring about changes it wanted…I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.”

To those who may think King is exaggerating this sentiment of returning soldiers I can attest to having this discussion in the Las Vegas Ghetto with very disturbed returning Vietnam Vets unable to get jobs, finding impoverished segregated communities who were planning to react as they had in “Nam.”

King continues, “Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over…So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children…Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases…We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise…Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and non-violence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view…”

“Somehow this madness must cease. I speak as a child of God…I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours.”

“Meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible… Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”

“Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets?

Or, will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

Unfortunately, Martin Luther King Jr.’s share of that human history had but a year to go. There is strong evidence of a clear connection between King’s campaign against the Vietnam War, as well as his avowal to fill the Capitol with determined activists on behalf of the poor of America (joined by Anti-War activists) not just to hold hands and sing but in true nonviolence to immobilize “business as usual” until clear actions were taken to address effectively the war on poverty, to bring the troops home to their communities and restore the country so devastated by a grossly debilitating and immoral war.

As we celebrate Black History Month during February, …could we take <time> …to read—perhaps communally. his ’67 vision? Can we catch his prophetic spirit deeper, making our own turning (“teshuva”), put our lives on the line – challenge ourselves to end the massive killing at home and abroad, stop business as usual & ride his dream to a “peaceable new heavens” (“no nukes in space”) and a new earth: no wars anywhere, ever, true peace and sharing of the abundance for all— Pastor Martin truly believed the source of all creation would one day open the way, we must choose life—of all and for all.

The night before he was assassinated, <more than> 40 years ago on April 3, 1968, King spoke these prophetic words: “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence. It is nonviolence or nonexistence.” Yes, as the proliferation of nuclear weapons spreads far beyond King had imagined we must all resist nuclear war in whatever ways we are able. But ever the man of faith & vision Pastor Martin insisted that to Hope is “to refuse to give up!”

We are created to live in a peaceful world—may King’s prophetic spirit continue to point the way!

Your brother,

Louie