Small Wars Journal

Rethinking Revolution: Why It Matters Today: Past is Prologue

Mon, 01/16/2012 - 5:15am

Imagine if President Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses S. Grant had declared the Southern Conservative Whites as an insurgency and labeled the Army of Northern Virginia as a terrorist group following the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War? 

The motives for such retribution were present, and the United States would have had the moral high ground for such an “Internal War on Terror (IWOT);” however, decisions were made not to use these labels because the overall intent was to maintain the structure of the state which required absorbing all nations, tribes, groups, and people back into the collective tent.

Imagine, as a form of reconciliation or reparation, the United States Government had immediately placed the Southern Whites with the newly freed slaves as the dominant economic and political power structures in the South?  

This move would have been reckless at the time, but it was our primary course of action in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade.

I'm sure that you have read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled Rip Van Winkle. The thing that we usually remember about this story is that Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years. But there is another point in that story that is almost always completely overlooked: it was a sign on the inn in the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountain for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip looked up at the picture of George Washington, he was completely lost; he knew not who he was. This reveals to us that the most striking fact about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not that he slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up on the mountain, a great revolution was taking place in the world - indeed, a revolution which would, at points, change the course of history. And Rip Van Winkle knew nothing about it; he was asleep.

There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in our world today. It is a social revolution, sweeping away the old order of colonialism. And in our own nation it is sweeping away the old order of slavery and racial segregation. The wind of change is blowing, and we see in our day and our age a significant development. Victor Hugo said on one occasion that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. In a real sense, the idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and human dignity. Wherever men are assembled today, the cry is always the same, "We want to be free." And so we see in our own world a revolution of rising expectations. The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake through this social revolution.

-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, Commencement Address for Oberlin College, June 1965, Oberlin Ohio


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