On Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King Day. I would argue that to some extent we did so in vain. The Dr. King we celebrate is but a shade of the man he was, the parts that are convenient; we remember his dream but forget his socialist principles. Near the end of his life Dr. King was planning a Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice, which he held was integral to true equality. So much so did he believe this that he drafted an Economic and Social Bill of Rights that called for, among other things, the right of every citizen to a minimum wage, an adequate education and “to the full benefits of modern science in health care”.

It is appealing to act as though he was a martyr who died and made everything ok, but as disproportionate incarceration rates and persisting economic inequality demonstrate, the reverend did not take racism with him into the grave. It appears that what did die with him, however, was the American pacifist movement.

The Civil Rights Movement seems to have been the last major pacifist movement in the United States. These days, pacifism is regarded, for the most part, as idealistic and naïve, a nice thought to be put aside after it’s tested. This is nothing more than a lack of faith; the lasting achievements of the movement demonstrate that non-violence can bring about meaningful changes.

Since the 1960s, political discourse has moved further and further away from peace; so, today what anti-war movements remain are on the fringe and sometimes, as in the case of isolationists or libertarians, are not rooted in pacifist ideology at all. In general, Americans have laid claim to the inclusive principles of the Civil Rights Movement and to a few of its egalitarian economic principles, but abandoned its non-violent aspects entirely.

As demonstrated by the angry rhetoric—talk of destroying our enemies and accepting “the mantle of anger”— from the most recent Republican debate and the applause it was met with, many in the United States are all too ready to oppose oppressive regimes such as those of Gaddafi, Mubarak or Assad through interventionist policies and the use of force, which does nothing for the oppressed and instead increases the chaos out of which those who survive must make order. Violence will always lead to violence.

Another instance lacking a pacifist argument is the gun control debate. Background checks or no background checks, the Republicans have it right: a person who wants to kill will kill, and it is that which must be changed. With that said, guns and other weapons are tools whose primary use is to inflict injury and kill. Such instruments have no more place in a civilized society than the guillotine.

This is not to say we ought to immediately disband the military and the police, but that we ought, in everything we do, endeavor to bring about a society in which the use of force as a coercive tool would be as reviled as it is unnecessary.

It might not be possible to abandon violence and war immediately, and there will always be times when such things seem necessary, but an organized pacifist movement would help keep alive a set of ideals that were a defining part of the philosophy of Dr. King and of the civil rights movement.

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