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Like some demonic, destructive suction tube: Martin Luther King Jr and US militarism Part II

January 13, 2019

In Part I, we looked at Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech, to demonstrate that the civil rights leaders was deeply critical of US militarism. We also look at the ways in which US militarism was impacting the world from the time of his speech in 1967, to the present, looking at what each administration was doing in terms of militarism. 

In Part II, we want to look at the organized US resistance movements against US militarism, since Dr. King’s 1967 Beyond Vietnam speech. In particular, we want to look at how that organized resistance to US militarism looked like in Grand Rapids and when it took place, which should illuminate the contradictions of when anti-militarism organizing occurred.

Vietnam Resistance

The anti-Vietnam war movement in Grand Rapids was not as militant as in cities like Chicago, New York or Washington, but there were a significant number of people opposing the war in a variety of ways.

Numerous churches took a stand against the US firebombing of villages in South Vietnam, with Fountain Street Church and Park Congregational leading the way, by bringing in national speakers who were against the war.

There were people were involved in the anti-draft movement in Grand Rapids as well, along with trainings on draft resistance and how to be a conscientious objector.

Many people from the Grand Rapids area also traveled to Washington, DC for the massive anti-war rallies. Many of those who went and organized buses were from colleges and high schools in the area, with Calvin College and Grand Valley State College being the most active.

Grand Valley had a lively student anti-war contingent, holding Teach-Ins, rallies and anti-draft actions. Calvin students organizing against the war were involved in organizing Teach-Ins, rallies and informational resources for students on the draft, as is seen in the picture. In addition, students at Calvin participated in the national Moratorium Campaign against the Vietnam War, with rallies on campus and organizing buses to DC.

For more on the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, go to this link

Anti-Nuclear Freeze Movement

A movement to challenge the proliferation of nuclear weapons was born and involved not only seasoned activists, but included physicians, social workers, scientists and teachers. Groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility help push an anti-nuclear agenda that focused on getting the US to sign on to an arms reduction treaty as the beginning stages of a total nuclear disarmament campaign.

In Grand Rapids, a local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Institute for Global Education (IGE) and various faith-based groups formed a coalition to educate the community and organize for nuclear disarmament.

In addition, there was a nuclear freeze campaign that sought to get local and state governments to declare themselves nuclear free zones.

However, there was also lots of direct action efforts as well. In August of 1982, several people were arrested at the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, which was a Strategic Air Command base in the UP. Beginning in 1983, there was a campaign that became to shut down a nuclear weapons factory, Williams International, in Walled Lake, Michigan. Several people from Grand Rapids also were part of that resistance.

Lastly, people from Grand Rapids were involved in direct action efforts at Wurthsmith Air Force Base, in Oscoda, Michigan in the late 1980s through 1991. This ongoing resistance, with hundreds being arrested, resulted in the base being shut down just a few years later.

For more information on the Anti-Nuclear Movement, go to this link

Anti-Apartheid in South Africa Movement

The international anti-apartheid movement had begun in the early 1960s, but people in Grand Rapids began organizing to end apartheid in South Africa in the late 1970s.

However, the movement really took off in the early 80s when organizers got the City of Grand Rapids to divest, the Grand Rapids Public Schools to pass a resolution against South African Apartheid and Calvin College students and faculty got that school to divest as well.

There were also several local people who traveled to be part of larger actions in New York and Washington, DC, with protests and mass civil disobedience.

For more details on the Anti-Apartheid Movement, go to this link

Central American Solidarity Movement

When the Reagan administration made Central America his obsession, the Central American Solidarity Movement began. In Grand Rapids this movement included several churches, the Institute for Global Education and groups like Stop the Invasion Campaign.

People were organized around US funding of the war in El Salvador and Guatemala, along with US funding of the Contra war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. There were teach-ins, rally, tons of educational work and lots of direct action. Congressman Paul Henry was a supporter of the contra war, so there were numerous actions in his office located in the federal building.

In addition, there were several protests after US trained soldiers had killed 6 Catholic priests, their cook and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989 and the US invasion of Panama.

For more information on the Central American Solidarity Movement, go to this link

Anti-Gulf War Movement 1991

When the US military buildup began in 1990, we knew it was only a matter of time before the US invaded Iraq. In Grand Rapids, a weekly demonstration in front of the Federal Building began in the fall of 1990.

However, once the war began in January, actions increased. Marches were organized against the war, a public fast and a Teach-in was organized. However, since the war only last a little over a month, this movement quickly died, even though there were ongoing consequences, which people tried to draw attention to in the summer of 1991, when President George H. W. Bush came to town.

Anti-War in Afghanistan Organizing

After September 11, 2001, the US quickly moved to take action to blame someone for the terrorist attack. In October of 2001, the US began bombing Afghanistan, even though Afghanistan had nothing to do with 9/11.

Most people were unwilling to speak out against the US invasion of Afghanistan, especially with all the fear-mongering after 9/11. However, there was a small effort against the US invasion of Afghanistan, which included demonstrations at government facilities, a news outlets, education materials and a Teach-In were created, along with fundraising for civil society groups in Afghanistan who opposed the US invasion.

There was also a short-lived effort to resist the escalation of the war in Afghanistan after the Obama administration sent 20,000 more troops

Anti-Iraq War Movement

Organizing against the Iraq war began even before the war started. People in Grand Rapids organized its first mass protest against the war in October of 2002. The next major action was in February of 2003, when President Bush came to Grand Rapids, right after he delivered his State of the Union address. Bush was greeted by an estimated 2,000 people.

Once the war began, there were actions against Congressman Vern Ehlers, at his office, when he spoke publicly and even at his house. There were also Teach-Ins, lots of education materials, counter-recruitment organizing and efforts to organize a long-tem resistance movement.

For more information on the Anti-Iraq War Movement, go to this link

Failure to Embrace Dr. King’s vision against US Militarism

While there has been a fair amount of anti-war organizing in Grand Rapids, since Dr. King gave his 1967 Beyond Vietnam speech, most of that organizing has been against specific wars and not against US militarism in general.

One thing that should be painfully clear is that in Grand Rapids (like the rest of the country), most of the anti-war organizing took place during Republican Administrations. However, as we documented in Part I, US militarism and US Imperialism is an ongoing, Bi-partisan reality.

What is instructive about this point is that, while there were numerous people who were against US wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan, most of those who were publicly opposed to those wars failed to do the following:

  • Most people who were against certain wars were unwilling to take any substantial risk in their opposition to US militarism.
  • Those tended to vote with the Democratic Party ended any opposition to wars, when Democrats occupied the White House or regained control of Congress.
  • There was insufficient intersectional organizing against US militarism, which is exactly what Dr. King was attempting to do in his Beyond Vietnam speech. Dr. King wasn’t just against the war in Vietnam, he was also against how resources for the war took from programs of social uplift.

These three points are important. First, we have to come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that US militarism in Bi-Partisan. Second, we have to acknowledge that most people in the US are unwilling to take the necessary risks to resist US militarism. Lastly, when there are anti-war movements, they often fail to connect their resistance to the anti-racist, anti-capitalist or anti-environmental efforts that are happening at the same time.

In Part III, we will make a proposal about how we can all better work towards Dr. King’s vision of resisting US militarism, especially with an intersectional approach to organizing and resistance.

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