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MLK’s fears of nuclear devastation should continue to resonate

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“The principal objective of all nations must be the total abolition of war. War must be finally eliminated or the whole of mankind will be plunged into the abyss of annihilation.”
Martin Luther King Jr., December 1957

Sixteen weeks to the day before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead on a hotel balcony in Memphis, he decided to write a letter to the people of Japan. In the letter, King expressed a great desire to visit the country and introduce himself along with his message of nuclear disarmament.

Dated Dec. 13, 1967, the letter is a fine example of how King had begun to tackle larger, more global issues. He marveled at how Japan had been able to resurrect itself into an economic power after experiencing nuclear devastation. He also, however, prodded Japan on how the country had at the time been treating war orphans of mixed heritage.

A visit from King to Japan may sound at first like some kind of empty celebrity visit designed to amplify the legend of the visitor, but there were signs that it could have been much more. For example, King only visited Seattle once in his life, a three-day trip during which he delivered several speeches and ate some barbecue before flying back to the U.S. East Coast. Today, the name of the county Seattle resides within is called King County, and the city’s public buses all bear his face.

Even now, Hiroshima is one of the only cities outside North America to honor Martin Luther King Day, thanks in large part to former Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, who often used King’s words in his speeches to better articulate the argument for nuclear disarmament. For example, in a speech at a U.S. Conference of Mayors luncheon in Washington in 2005, Akiba spoke of the fiery way in which King rejected the notion of nuclear weapons. King once said, “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation.”

One week before his death, King was still haunted by visions of what the world might look like after the use of nuclear weapons. “The whole world may well be plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine,” he warned.

In today’s world, it appears that the threat of nuclear annihilation has been usurped by the specter of climate change, and even that issue has seen sharper days. As Hiroshima honors the 70th anniversary of the bombings, it seems as if, with each passing year, the threat of nuclear attacks is diminishing. While this is of course a good thing, it also creates a new challenge: No one feels it is vital to talk about this anymore.

As you read this, there are close to 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world. One average-sized missile would be enough to decimate an entire city. And yet, developed countries continue to hold stockpiles of thousands of nuclear weapons . . . well, just in case.

It is a dangerous concept, this idea of having something “just in case.” In America, millions of families keep guns at their homes, just in case. Although a great deal of time has passed since King made these remarks, this just-in-case concept has been true ever since the United States started stockpiling its weapons arsenal just in case Russia . . . well, you know . . . and it continues to this day.

Perhaps, for this article, the last word should be given to Dr. King, who died fighting for nonviolence. Even in January 1959, at the age of 30, the nuclear issue cast a shadow over a moment of reflection by King on the successes of the civil rights movement. King had made an incredible amount of progress in such a short time, and yet he could sense a fair amount of meaninglessness to it all if one issue was never solved. “What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people . . . are merely free to face destruction by . . . atomic war?” he asked.

There really is no easy solution. What must be understood, however, is that the very act of keeping nuclear weapons is a violation of our rights as human beings. You could say, when you strip away all the fanfare and complexities, that we are basically given one right when we are born: the right to live. That’s it. And that concept has been in danger ever since 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945.

View King’s letter to the people of Japan here: bit.ly/mlkjapan. Patrick Parr is currently writing a book about Martin Luther King’s days at Crozer Theological Seminary. Recently he was awarded an Artist Trust Fellowship for his literary career. Website: www.patrickparr.com. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp