Martin Luther King: A Latin American Perspective

Human Rights

Far away. I was far away from Washington, D.C. that hot day in August of 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I was far away in Chile, twenty-one years old at the time and entangled, like so many of my generation, in the struggle to liberate Latin America. The speech by King that was to influence my life so deeply did not even register with me. I cannot even recall having noticed its existence. What I can remember with ferocious precision, however, is the place and the date, and even the hour when, many years later, I had occasion to listen for the first time to those "I have a dream" words, heard that melodious baritone, those incantations, that emotional certainty of victory. I can remember the occasion so clearly because it happened to be the day Martin Luther King was killed, April 4, 1968, and ever since that day, his dream and his death have been grievously linked, conjoined in my mind then as they are now, forty years later, in my memory.

I recall how I was sitting with my wife Angelica and our one year old child Rodrigo, in a living room, high up in the hills of Berkeley, the University town in California where we had arrived barely a week before. Our hosts, an American family who had generously offered us temporary lodgings while our apartment was being readied, had switched on the television and we all solemnly watched the nightly news, probably at seven in the evening, probably Walter Cronkite. And there it was, the murder of Martin Luther King in that Memphis hotel and then came reports of riots all over America and, finally, a long excerpt of his "I have a dream" speech.

It was only then, I think, that I began to realize who Martin Luther King had been, what we had lost with his departure from this world, the legend he was already becoming in front of my very eyes. In the years to come, I would often return to that speech and would, on each occasion, hew from its mountain of meanings a different rock upon which to stand and understand the world.

Beyond my amazement at King's eloquence when I first heard him back in 1968, my immediate reaction was not so much to be inspired as to be puzzled, close to despair. After all, the slaying of this man of peace was answered, not by a pledge to persevere in his legacy, but by furious uprisings in the slums of black America, the disenfranchised of America avenging their dead leader by burning down the ghettos where they felt imprisoned and impoverished, using the fire this time to proclaim that the non-violence King had advocated was useless, that the only way to end inequity in this world was through the barrel of a gun, the only way to make the powerful pay attention was to scare the hell out of them. King's assassination, therefore, savagely brought up yet one more time a question that had bedeviled me, as so many other activists, in the late sixties: What was the best method to achieve radical change? Could we picture a rebellion in the way that Martin Luther King had envisioned it, without drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred, without treating our adversaries as they treated us? Or did the road into the palace of justice and the bright day of brotherhood inevitably require violence as its companion, violence as the unavoidable midwife of revolution?

Questions that, back in Chile, I would soon be forced to answer not through cloudy theoretical musings, but in the day-to-day reality of hard history, when Salvador Allende was elected President in 1970 and we became the first country that tried to build socialism through peaceful means. Allende's vision of social change, elaborated over decades of struggle and thought, was similar to King's, even though they came from very different political and cultural origins. Allende, for instance, who was not at all religious, would not have agreed with King that physical force must be met with soul force, but rather with the force of social organizing. At a time when many in Latin America were dazzled by the armed struggle proposed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, it was Allende's singular accomplishment to imagine as inextricably connected the two quests of our era, the quest for more democracy and more civil freedoms, and the parallel quest for social justice and the economic empowerment of the dispossessed of this earth. And it was to be Allende's fate to echo the fate of Martin Luther King; it was his choice to die three years later. Yes, on September 11, 1973, almost ten years to the day after King's "I have a dream" speech in Washington, Allende chose to die defending his own dream, promising us, in his last speech, that sooner rather than later -- mas temprano que tarde -- a day would come when the free men and women of Chile would walk through -- las amplias alamedas -- the great avenues full of trees, towards a better society.

It was in the immediate aftermath of that terrible defeat, as we watched the powerful of Chile impose upon us the terror that we had not wanted to visit upon them, it was then, as our non-violence was met with executions and torture and disappearances, it was only then, after the military coup of 1973, that I first began to seriously commune with Martin Luther King, that his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial came back to haunt and question me. As I headed into an exile that would last for many years, King's voice and message began to filter fully, word by word, into my life. After all, if ever there was a situation where violence could be justified, it would have been against the junta in Chile. Pinochet and his generals had overthrown a constitutional government and were killing and persecuting citizens whose radical sin had been to imagine a world where you do not need to massacre your opponents in order to allow the waters of justice to flow. And yet, very wisely, almost instinctively, the Chilean resistance embraced a different route: to slowly, resolutely, dangerously, take over the surface of the country, isolate the dictatorship inside and outside our nation, and make Chile ungovernable through civil disobedience. Not entirely different from the strategy that the civil rights movement had espoused in the United States. And indeed, I never felt closer to Martin Luther King than during the seventeen years it took us to free Chile of its dictatorship. His words to the militants who thronged to Washington, D.C., in 1963, demanding that they not lose faith, resonated with me, comforted my sad heart.

He was speaking prophetically to me, to us, when he said, "I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells." Speaking to us, Dr. King, speaking to me, when he thundered: "Some of you come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering." He understood that more difficult than going to your first protest, was to awaken the next day and go to the next protest and then the next one, the daily grind of small acts that can lead to large and lethal consequences. The dogs and sheriffs of Alabama and Mississippi were alive and well in the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso, and so was the spirit that had encouraged defenseless men and women and children to be mowed down, beaten, bombed, harassed, and yet continue confronting their oppressors with the only weapons available to them: the suffering of their bodies and the conviction that nothing could make them turn back. And just like the blacks in the United States, so in Chile we also sang in the streets of the cities that had been stolen from us. Not spirituals, for every land has its own songs. In Chile we sang, over and over, the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the hope that a day would come when all men would be brothers.

Why were we singing? To give ourselves courage, of course. But not only that, not only that. In Chile, we sang and stood against the hoses and the tear gas and the truncheons, because we knew that somebody else was watching. In this, we also followed in the cunning, media-savvy footsteps of Martin Luther King: That mismatched confrontation between the police state and the people was being witnessed, photographed, transmitted to other eyes. In the case of the deep south of the United States, the audience was the majority of the American people, while in that other struggle years later, in the deeper south of Chile, the daily spectacle of peaceful men and women being repressed by the agents of terror targeted the national and international forces whose support Pinochet and his dependent third-world dictatorship needed in order to survive. The tactic worked, of course, because we understood, as Martin Luther King and Gandhi had before us, that our adversaries could be influenced and shamed by public opinion, could eventually be compelled to relinquish power. That is how segregation was defeated in the South of the United States; that is how the Chilean people beat Pinochet in a plebiscite in 1988 that led to democracy in 1990; that is the story of the downfall of tyrannies in Iran and Poland and the Philippines -- although parallel struggles for liberation, against the apartheid regime in South Africa or the homicidal autocracy in Nicaragua or the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, also showed how King's premonitory words of non-violence could not be mechanically applied to every situation.

And what of today? When I return to that speech I first heard thirty-five years ago, the very day King died, is there a message for me, for us, something that we need to hear again, as if we were listening to those words for the first time?

What would Martin Luther King say if he contemplated what his country has become? If he could see how the terror and death brought to bear upon New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 had turned his people into a fearful nation, ready to stop dreaming, ready to abridge their own freedoms in order to be secure? What would he say if he could observe how that fear has been manipulated in order to justify the invasion of a foreign land, the occupation of that land against the will of its own people? What alternative way would he have advised to be rid of a tyrant like Saddam Hussein? And how would he react to the Bush doctrine that states that some people on this planet, Americans to be precise, have more rights than the other citizens of the world? What would he say if he were to see his fellow countrymen proclaiming that because of their pain and their military and economic might they can do as they please, flaunt international law, withdraw from nuclear treaties, deceive and pollute the world? Would he warn them that such arrogance will not go unpunished? Would he tell those who oppose these policies inside the United States to stand up and be counted, to march ahead, never to wallow in the valley of despair?

It is my belief that he would repeat some of the words he delivered on that faraway day in August of 1963 in the shadow of the statue of Abraham Lincoln. I believe he would declare again his faith in his country and remind us of how deeply his dream is rooted in the American dream, of how, despite the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, his dream is still alive and how his nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

Let us hope that he is right. Let us hope and pray, for his sake and ours, that Martin Luther King's faith in his own country was not misplaced, and that forty years later his compatriots will once again listen to his fierce and gentle voice calling to them from beyond death and beyond fear, calling on all of us to stand together for freedom and justice in our time.

Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer, has just published Exorcising Terror: The Incredible, Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet.

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