Out of the Darkness
By BOB HERBERT
Atlanta — You could get dizzy thinking about the history that has passed in and out of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was the spiritual home (and primary safe house) of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's. There's now a spiffy new church right across the street, but the memories of the battles fought and the freedom gained in that tumultuous period live on in the old building, with its narrow stairways and creaking floors, and the basement where so many strategy sessions were held.
On Friday night I had the privilege of joining the actors Martin Sheen, Lynn Redgrave, Alfre Woodard, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and others in a reading at the old church of Ariel Dorfman's play "Speak Truth to Power: Voices From Beyond the Dark," which is based on the book "Speak Truth to Power," by Kerry Kennedy and the photographer Eddie Adams. The occasion marked the 76th anniversary of Dr. King's birth (he was only 39 when he was killed) and the 40th anniversary of his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. Among those in the audience was Dr. King's widow, Coretta.
"Speak Truth to Power" is about the emergence of courage and moral leadership in those bleak periods when free expression, religious liberty, human rights and even our very humanity are threatened by destructive forces that range from indifference to murderous brutality. The leadership often comes from unexpected sources, like Bobby Muller, an American Marine lieutenant whose spinal cord was severed when he was shot in the back in Vietnam. He became a champion of veterans' rights and years later, as a co-founder of the Campaign to Ban Land Mines, shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mr. Muller, in a wheelchair, was also in the audience at Ebenezer on Friday night .
"Courage begins with one voice," said Oscar Arias Sanchez, the former president of Costa Rica, who won the Nobel Prize in 1987 for developing a Central American peace plan.
Both the play and the book are made up of passages from interviews of men and women who, in a wide variety of ways, defended human rights in countries that span the globe. Dianna Ortiz is an Ursuline nun from New Mexico who went to Guatemala in the 1980's as a missionary. She was abducted, gang raped and tortured by government agents. She said one of the men overseeing the torture appeared to be American. At one point she was lowered into a pit filled with the bodies of men, women and children who had been murdered.
"To this day," said Sister Ortiz, "I can smell the decomposing of bodies disposed of in an open pit. I can hear the piercing screams of other people being tortured."
In a short introduction to Sister Ortiz's interview in the book, Ms. Kennedy wrote:
"Ortiz's ordeal did not end with her escape. Her torment continued as she sought answers from the U.S. government about the identity of her torturers in her unrelenting quest for justice. Ortiz's raw honesty and capacity to articulate the agony she suffered compelled the United States to declassify long-secret files on Guatemala, and shed light on some of the darkest moments of Guatemalan history and American foreign policy."
Sister Ortiz now runs a center for survivors of torture.
The most hopeful thing to be drawn from Mr. Dorfman's play and Ms. Kennedy's book is that effective leadership can come from anywhere, at any time. From my perspective, this is a dark moment in American history. The Treasury has been raided and the loot is being turned over by the trainload to those who are already the richest citizens in the land. We've launched a hideous war for no good reason in Iraq. And we're about to elevate to the highest law enforcement position in the land a man who helped choreograph the American effort to evade the international prohibitions against torture.
Never since his assassination in 1968 have I felt the absence of Martin Luther King more acutely. Where are today's voices of moral outrage? Where is the leadership willing to stand up and say: Enough! We've sullied ourselves enough.
I'm convinced, without being able to prove it, that those voices will emerge. There was a time when no one had heard of Dr. King. Or Oscar Arias Sanchez. Or Martin O'Brien, who founded the foremost human rights organization in Northern Ireland, and who tells us: "The worst thing is apathy - to sit idly by in the face of injustice and to do nothing about it."