WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2011 — If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he understand why the United States is at war?
Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel, posed that question at today’s Pentagon commemoration of King’s legacy.
In the final year of his life, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Johnson told a packed auditorium. However, he added, today’s wars are not out of line with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teachings.
“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack,” he said.
Johnson is a 1979 graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, where King graduated in 1948. He also attended school with King’s son, Martin Luther King III, and was privy to the elder King’s speaking engagements there.
Johnson said today’s service members might wonder whether the mission they serve is consistent with King’s message and beliefs. In King’s last speech in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968 — the night before he died — King evoked the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, Johnson noted.
According to the parable, a traveler was beaten and robbed and left for dead. Two other travelers passed the man as he lay alongside the road — one was a priest. Both ignored the man and continued on their way. Finally, a Samaritan traveling the road showed compassion and took the stranger to an inn and saw to his care.
In his speech, King drew a parallel between those who passed by the man on the road and those in Memphis who at the time hesitated to help striking sanitation workers because they feared for their own jobs.
Johnson said King criticized those who are compassionate by proxy, noting the civil rights leader told the audience in Memphis that night, “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ ”
Johnson compared today’s troops to the Samaritan, who chose to help instead of taking an easier path.
“I draw the parallel to our own servicemen and women deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, away from the comfort of conventional jobs, their families and their homes,” Johnson said.
Volunteers in today’s military, he said, “have made the conscious decision to travel a dangerous road and personally stop and administer aid to those who want peace, freedom and a better place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in defense of the American people.
“Every day, our servicemen and women practice the dangerousness — the dangerous unselfishness Dr. King preached on April 3, 1968,” Johnson told the audience.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)