On January 21, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama took the oath office for the second time, reportedly placing his hand on the travel Bible of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A great many people will no doubt think it ironically fitting that President Obama invoked the memory of Dr. King in this manner.
After all, Dr. King is rightfully remembered as a moral giant when it comes to the history of civil rights advocacy for African American people. And what better way to commemorate that legacy than to use one of Dr. King’s Bibles for once again swearing in the first African American President of the United States. However, some deeper comparisons are warranted.
On April 4, 1967, Dr. King delivered an address at Riverside Church in New York City, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned. It was one year to the day before he would be assassinated in Birmingham, Alabama. The main purpose of his speech that evening was to openly express his protest of the carnage and injustices that the United States was visiting upon the Vietnamese people in an unjustifiable war.
Dr. King was a man of deep compassion. He was a Christian minister who believed in the dream of a beneficial future for all people, not just for his own people, and not just for the American people. To his Clergy and Laity Concerned audience he said in part: “The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
Silence is betrayal. Think about that. Part of breaking that silence is speaking of the thousands of American Indians who have served in the United States military in unjustified U.S. wars such as the war in Iraq. Another part is speaking of the U.S. drone strikes that kill innocent civilians, which I will discuss further in a moment.
There are uncomfortable truths about President Obama’s foreign and domestic policies, and we in Indian country must not remain silent. Let’s first discuss the domestic context.
It is a sad truth that there is a stark difference between Mr. Obama and Dr. King in the area of civil rights. Dr. King ceaselessly advocated for, marched in favor of, and went to jail for civil rights. By contrast, President Obama, after having achieved the most powerful office on the planet, has used his position to severely curtail civil rights in the United States.
He did so by signing the National Defense Authorization Act on Dec. 31, 2011. He signed the bill, despite it containing a provision—that Senator Levin (D-MI) said the Obama administration had requested—that allows for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens and legal residents without charge or trial.
The fact that President Obama issued a signing statement saying that he would not use the newly enacted power matters at all, especially given that his administration is said to have requested that power. He failed to stand on moral grounds against that provision by opposing it to safeguard the civil liberties that Dr. King fought and died for. He did not vigorously oppose such an odious provision as we have to imagine Dr. King would have done.
The danger still looms. This past December, the U.S. Senate declined to remove the offending Indefinite Detention provision that undermines and undercuts the very concept of civil rights, which is, of course, the idea that citizens will be protected by ‘the law’ from ‘the State,’ and from government overreach or tyranny. Why keep such a provision as part of U.S. law unless it is being seen by U.S. government officials as a contingency, meaning something to be used when deemed “necessary”?
Now back to the context of U.S. foreign policy. In his 1967 New York City speech, Dr. King said: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
By contrast, instead of ‘soul force’ under President Obama’s watch the U.S. has and continues to use the searing force and deadly nature of U.S. drones to strike inside the country of, for example, Pakistan. As a consequence, a large number of innocents, including women and children, have been killed. What Dr. King said of the Vietnam War is applicable to the U.S. wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and U.S. military actions in Pakistan:
“The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.”
I have to believe that if he were alive today, Dr. King would be directing similar words to President Obama.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.