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On Gaza: What would Martin Luther King do?

He insisted in 1967 that it was morally imperative for the US to stop its role in the Vietnam war. He would be calling for Biden to demand a ceasefire now.

Analysis | Global Crises

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King today, we cross the 100-day mark in the devastating war in Gaza. If Dr. King were alive today, I feel certain he would have joined marches this weekend and used his voice and his pulpit to press the United States government to do everything in its power to persuade or pressure the government of Israel — which it has backed politically, diplomatically, militarily and financially — to agree to a ceasefire in its war in Gaza.

That war, waged in response to the deadly cross-border attack by Hamas and other militants on October 7 into Southern Israel has resulted in at least 23,000 Palestinian deaths and massive destruction, to date, as well as a punishing blockade preventing adequate food, water, medicine and other critical care to the two million people penned into the Gaza strip. As they seek shelter from artillery or bombs, more than 90 percent of the population is now at near term risk of starvation.

All of this horror is transpiring before our eyes — in much the way that the nightly network TV news brought reports from Vietnam in the 1960s. On April 4, 1967, Rev. King spoke out against the deadly impacts of America’s role in the Vietnamese civil war at the Riverside Church in his historic “Beyond Vietnam” speech, declaring “my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Rev. King insisted that it was morally imperative for the United States to take radical steps to halt the war — or at least its role in the war.

Inspired by his example, in early November more than 1,000 Black Christian leaders joined me to call upon President Biden to support a ceasefire in Gaza. Several of us met with White House outreach staff before publishing our call in a full page ad in the New York Times, urging them to use America’s leverage to actively work for a bilateral ceasefire and the release of all hostages held by Hamas and its allies, an increase of humanitarian aid and a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Among the signers were Rev. King’s daughter, Bernice A. King, Bishop Leah Daughtry and Rev. Dr. Freddy Haynes.

We called for “the safe and immediate return of all hostages still held in Gaza, the restoration of water, electricity, and urgent humanitarian relief to Palestinians commensurate with the scale of need created by this war.” We expressed concern that unless there is an immediate ceasefire by both Hamas and Israel, the conflict in Gaza will escalate into a regional war resulting in the continued death and injury of countless Palestinian and Israeli civilians, particularly children. Our fears are now being realized, as the U.S. government has launched missiles or dropped bombs on Syria, Iraqi militias, and — most recently — unleashed a barrage against the Yemeni forces who are disrupting shipping in the Red Sea, in an effort to put pressure on states to end Israel’s slaughter in Gaza. And war with forces in Lebanon appears highly probable.

Our call on the Biden Administration to “see the deaths and hear the cries of both our Palestinian and Israeli siblings whom all deserve to live safe from harm,” appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Beyond a temporary seven-day ceasefire in November, President Biden and the U.S. representatives in the UN have largely been unwavering in their support of Israel. While saying that he wants the war to end “as soon as possible.” Biden has not presented a timeline for ending the war. In a recent UN vote calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, the US was one of only 10 nations to vote against the resolution.

When we published our NYT appeal, “only” 10,000 residents of Gaza had been killed. We were told that President Biden is quietly applying pressure. Yet two months later, that toll stands at over 23,000 people killed. By the time Biden's “quiet strategy” bears fruit, there may well be nothing left of Gaza and we may have a regional war.

Against this backdrop, I and other Black American church leaders welcomed the moral leadership of the government of South Africa in bringing to the International Court of Justice an allegation of intent by Israel to commit genocide against the Palestinians of Gaza. Their request for rapid assessment of Israel’s compliance with its obligations under the Genocide Convention was heard in the Hague and viewed with interest around the world this past week.

This leadership by South Africa is especially poignant to Black clergy, many of whom actively campaigned in the 1980s to force the Reagan White House to end its support for the racist, apartheid government in South Africa. That work paid off, finally, in 1987, when Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto of a bill requiring comprehensive sanctions by the US government against the racist apartheid government that denied people of color their basic rights.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, who was a leader in that struggle in South Africa, explained the decision to bring the World Court case by saying, “As a people who once tasted the bitter fruits of dispossession, discrimination, racism and state-sponsored violence, we are clear that we will stand on the right side of history."

As Rev. King reminded us in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As people of moral conscience and as citizens of the United States, Black Christian leaders and so many other moral voices will continue to do all that is within our power to end U.S. support for the indiscriminate war and to press urgently for the return of the hostages and humanitarian assistance to the children, adults and elderly of Gaza.

Martin Luther King Jr., March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963 (public domain)

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