You Have Been the Veterans of Creative Suffering

I usher now at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Last Thursday our concert was a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.; one of the pieces had Atlanta’s mayor narrating segments of MLK speeches against a backdrop of cinematic music by the orchestra (the piece is called “New Morning for the World”). The words of the piece were powerful, and the next day I listened to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in full, delivered at the close of the March on Washington.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at the March on Washington

As I was listening, Korean unification came to mind. A common analogy for Americans to the Korean peninsula is an extension of our Civil War: what if the Civil War had ended in an uneasy truce with a border splitting the United States in two, and for the next sixty years no one crossed it? The South goes its way, and the North its own. It is a very rough but concrete analogy for the Korean situation—although it would be more accurate if the United States had been ethnically and culturally homogeneous for the past few millenia.

Still, the Civil War offers a way for us to access the reality of a political situation seven thousand miles away. But that night at the Symphony, I was struck by how aptly the Reverend Doctor’s exhortations to the civil rights movement fit the Korean situation. King’s words, for me, resonated powerfully, for the North Korean indeed “lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Illustration:

Pyongyang is a lonely island in the middle of a sea of darkness engulfing the rest of North Korea. The absence of electricity is easily visible to us; the absence of food, of medicine, of the freedoms of speech and movement and action less so. These invisible absences again echoed within King’s words:

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Too many people are content, myself included, with the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. It is more realistic, more sensible. Most experts say that a gradual approach is the only way to diminish the burden of unification on the South to a manageable level, and piecemeal liberalization of its markets the best path to expect for unification. There is little we can do to hasten unification from the outside; there is little South Korea can do, other than prepare. Gradualism is both sensible and, it seems, necessary.

But this sensible and necessary gradualism does obscure the fierce urgency of now for North Koreans—the fierce urgency of the children who die every day because their country cannot mobilize its resources to produce enough food, of the separated families in North and South whose members grow old and die apart, of the people in the labor camps who cannot wait another year or another half a year for gradual change in North Korea.

For too many, any change that comes will be too late. For too many, it is already too late.

The most fitting line I found in Dr. King’s speech: “You have been the veterans of creative suffering.”

* * * * *

Even decades after Dr. King’s speech, the dreams he spoke of are not entirely fulfilled. A black president sits in the White House; but after Yo-Yo Ma finished his concerto at the MLK memorial concert on Thursday and performed an encore rendition of “We Shall Overcome”, with the Morehouse and Spelman College gospel choirs standing up to sing with the orchestra and an old black lady usher standing next to me mouthing the words to the hymn with tears in her eyes, I took the escalators down into the basements of the city to the ill-functioning public transit system where the vast majority of riders are poor and black, unable to afford any other option, shuttling to and from late-night jobs wearing night-shift reflective vests or clogs for standing all day, and it was clear that they, at least, have not yet overcome all of the difficulties facing them in Atlanta. Similarly, I know that Korean integration will not be immediately successful—it will be decades before a semblance of equality arises between two halves that are presently so unequal.

That will take a while; but I hope at least that someday soon all North Koreans will be able to hear the final words of Dr. King’s speech (in translation, I suppose), and will be able to agree: “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

We all look forward to that day.


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