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January 24, 2013
On Monday, the symbolism of President Barack H. Obama being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was inescapable for those who watched. Through the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the Selma to Montgomery protest, and the March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience to bear on the issue of racial injustice in America. Due to the work of tireless civil rights advocates, the country has changed meaningfully from that day in 1963 when King exhorted a crowd of over 200,000 in Washington DC to dream of an America where racism was vanquished.
Yet the election of President Obama only marks a milestone in one of the many legacies that King bequeathed our country. On April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, King delivered a blistering critique of the war in Vietnam and linked advocacy against militarism to the fight for social justice in the United States. He argued, "A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Today, even as we find ourselves extricated from Iraq and withdrawing from Afghanistan, we continue policies that speak to the influence of militarism in our culture.
In an age when the Cold War is over, and the threat of great wars seems anachronistic, it is time to approach our security needs with an eye towards prevention and investing in peace. We only spend 1.5% of the budget on the state department yet we eagerly spend billions on the production of new fighters. We insufficiently fund programs that help secure loose nuclear material, yet are willing to spend over $20 billion on a new class of ICBMs and nuclear armed submarines.
Our spending priorities reflect our values and the U.S. budget should make all of us outraged at our willingness to spend hundreds of billions on the Pentagon when programs to lift people out of poverty are reliably underfunded and ill equipped to meet the challenge. We must approach the, sometimes seemingly abstract numbers of the federal budget, as the same thing as denying children an education or the sick health-care. Our choice to spend money on unnecessary overseas bases or a missile defense system that does not work represents real tradeoffs that demand more than the occasional lament or protest.
We commemorate the legacy of King's work by renewing our commitment to seek a country that matches the ideals that he saw possible in this country.