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    Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Orpheus Songs to Peace and Reconciliation

    August 24, 2020

    In the last chapter of Where Do We Go from Here, the “World House,” Martin Luther King wrote:

    There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers and other servants of the public to ensure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

    King concludes: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Is our nation approaching a state of “spiritual death”? One way of addressing that question would be to look at the US spending on military defense compared to programs of social uplift. Then again, what would those numbers mean and how should we define “defense spending”? The discretionary budget for military defense, which was $686 billion in 2019, could certainly be a working metric, but we know that in reality, the price tag for US spending on defense is one of those unknowable facts: not just because of the sheer size of the dollar amounts, but also because of the blurred lines between the military, the militarized policing, homeland security, and various other policies and programs. The United States Institute of Peace, introduced to Congress by Ambassador Andrew Young, is an American federal institution tasked with promoting conflict resolution and prevention worldwide. In 2019, the Institute of Peace received a mere $37.8 million: that’s 1/180th of the military defense budget. 

    One can then safely posit that King was right, 50 years ago, but also today, about the US spending “more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” but we would also need to address the idea of what constitutes such programs and what it means to frame them as “programs of social uplift.” What King meant by programs of social uplift is fairly clear from his Appendices (viz., education, employment, housing, and civil rights) to Where Do We Go from Here. In the absence of these types of programs, social uplift and transformative justice simply are not possible. And without justice of this sort, warns King, surely there can be no peace.

    Although one might be tempted to think of healthcare as a program of social uplift, that seems to us misleading: health care could—perhaps should—alternatively be viewed as a basic human right, alongside a right to free education, to adequate housing, to a decent living, to social security, to form trade unions. If you are guessing this list comes from some UN convention, you are right. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) lists all these and others as basic human rights that states must uphold and provide to their citizens. But the US is among the handful of countries that never ratified the treaty – although President Carter did sign it. The US would seem to view these provisions not as human rights, but as desirable social goals. 

    King occasionally makes reference to the “nation,” as he does in this citation, but he spoke more often still of the “beloved community.” In “Non-violence: The Only Road to Freedom” (1966), King claimed that the creation of the beloved community would ultimately “require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Interestingly, the most widely used definition of a nation is that of Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities. Anderson defines the nation as “an imagined political community because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion.” Nation. Community. Communion. King thought that a healthy government would invest in providing and preserving these concepts, through access to basic human rights as well as programs of social uplift and policies that emphasized the pursuit of peace and human welfare rather than war.

    What did King advise? What is to be done in times marked by the deafening drum beat of war, or the moral equivalent of war, whether domestic or abroad? In Where Do We Go from Here, again, King writes:

    It is not enough to say, ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the eradication of war but on the affirmation of peace. A fascinating story about Ulysses and the Sirens is preserved for us in Greek literature. The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks, and men forgot home, duty and honor as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down to death. Ulysses, determined not to succumb to the Sirens, first decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat and his crew stuffed their ears with wax. But finally, he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus, whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who would bother to listen to the Sirens?

    So we must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war. Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the nuclear arms race, which no one can win, to a creative contest to harness man’s genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a ‘peace race.’

    King famously claimed that “war is not the answer.” Domestically, better armored police is not the answer. What is the answer, then? Although it sounds cliché to say that he believed that “love supplies the answer to every problem that confronts us,” as King put it in Strength to Love, it seems almost revolutionary to add that King also thought – as Cornel West reminds us – that “justice is what love looks like in public.” Rather than simply rehearsing hackneyed platitudes such as violence breeds further violence, or that he who hates the enemy will eventually end up hating  everyone, including himself, or that all are blind in the land ruled by Hammurabi’s code, King suggests that we needed to learn to find a better way to save ourselves, to sing like Orpheus, and discover a “sweeter song than the music of the Sirens.”


    Oumar Ba is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse and the author of States of Justice: The Politics of the International Criminal Court (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

    Kipton E. Jensen is an associate professor of philosophy and the director of the Leadership Studies Program in the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership at Morehouse College. His latest book is Howard Thurman: Philosophy, Civil Rights, and the Search for Common Ground (University of South Carolina Press, 2019).

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