Talk of the townie

Civil rights now and then: refusing to remain silent on Bush’s war

Juan Williams, a writer and commentator (NPR, Fox News) talks about the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. as Mel Assagai looks on at Sacramento State.

Juan Williams, a writer and commentator (NPR, Fox News) talks about the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. as Mel Assagai looks on at Sacramento State.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

King for a day
It has been 40 years but the booming voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can still silence a crowd. More than 1,000 people are gathered in Sacramento State’s University Union Ballroom on Oct. 16 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s speech just south of here in the campus football stadium.

People are still trickling in as the evening portion of the all-day event begins with gospel from the Sacramento Metropolitan Community Choir. The scene looks like something out of an old Southern church. Folks clapping along to the music. A woman sitting in the back cooling herself with the fan she just pulled from her purse. Goose bumps shooting up everyone’s arms as the choir’s notes rise to the words, “Nobody told me the road would be easy.”

Michael White, a 27-year-old Sacramento State student and radio deejay is among those enthusiastically clapping along.

“This is an important part of our history,” he says. “I wasn’t able to be here the first time [King] was actually here, so it’s nice to get some knowledge about what went on.”

A short black-and-white video clip of King’s speech from 1967 is projected onto three huge screens at the far right side of the room. The gathering falls silent.

“What is it that America has failed to hear?” King asks. “It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned with tranquility and the status quo than about justice, humanity and equality.”

Four decades after these words were spoken here, African American activists like south Sacramento’s Rhonda Erwin, who received a VIP invitation to attend the 40th anniversary celebration, which she did, is not sure song and dance is the right way to make King’s dream of equality a reality. More direct action is needed, Erwin wrote in her near daily e-mail to friends, supporters and the local media.

“May we honor Dr. King by honoring the people he represented, those with despair, hopelessness, neglect. May we honor Dr. King by bringing those of us he represented, stood for and died for out of the dark and into the light.”

That added poignancy to the keynote speech by Dr. Clayborne Carson, an MLK expert who recalled the political difficulties endured by the civil rights leader in his later life. Naturally, Carson concluded with King’s words.

“If you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live.”

—Kari Westerman

Ann Wright

Service mettle
Wearing a black T-shirt with white letters that spell out “We shall not be silent” in Arabic and English, retired Army Col. Ann Wright scans the crowd of 30 people at Sacramento City College on Oct. 16 with blue eyes that show a mix of compassion and determination as she calmly explains how she went from being a high-level State Department insider to an outsider urging an end to the Bush White House’s Iraq war policies.

“I resigned my position with the U.S. Foreign Service on March 19, 2003, after the invasion of Iraq,” Wright says. “I thought that going to war in an oil-rich Muslim country was a recipe for trouble for us.”

That prediction was quickly justified, of course, and for the past five-and-a-half years Wright has been a vocal critic of the Iraq conflict, going so far as to join Cindy Sheehan in anti-war protests outside George W. Bush’s home in Crawford, Texas, and flying to Jordan to meet and talk peace with Iraqi parliamentarians.

She came off like a typical peacenik, characterizing as illegal the U.S. government’s invasion and occupation of Iraq; jailing without charges, trial dates or scheduled release of prisoners of war (or “enemy combatants” in Bush speak); torture of some of those prisoners; and the crackdown on Americans’ civil liberties. Wright called on her fellow Americans to push Congress to pursue a peaceful solution to the situation.

However, she was quick to add she does not consider herself a pacifist, pointing to her direct involvement in numerous military actions during a government career that spanned eight administrations. She backed the U.S. aggression in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks. Three months later, she was part of the initial State Department team that assisted in the reopening of a U.S. Embassy in Kabul. And she was not alone in her dissent when the administration set its sights on Iraq. Two other U.S. diplomats resigned along with her.

Wright has written a book, along with Susan Dixon, titled Dissent: Voices of Conscience, which profiles 24 government whistle-blowers who have taken stands against the Bush administration’s policies during the war on terror. As she held up a copy of the book, Wright mentioned that the CIA and other intelligence agencies have been reviewing it since July.

“I can’t let you look at it,” she said with a laugh. “I signed a letter before resigning my job to let the government read writing of mine on foreign affairs and to cut out any classified information before publication.” She claimed to have only used open source material to avoid divulging any national security secrets, not that it mattered, apparently.

“The government can slow roll you,” she said.

—Seth Sandronsky