One year to the day before he was murdered, Martin Luther King gave what was perhaps his most controversial speech.
Preaching at New York’s Riverside Church before an interfaith gathering of religious leaders, King decisively stepped out of his usual zone of advocating non-violence and racial justice. He gave a full-throated call for an immediate end to the Vietnam War.
“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war ... Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty,” he said. “But we must move on.”
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He based his call on both the suffering of the Vietnamese on all sides and also from his own experience of preaching non-violence to young black activists in their own neighborhoods back home.
“They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted,” he said. “Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
Although King was careful not to glorify the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong, and he was clear in his condemnation of communism, he was widely criticized after the speech. Critics called it unpatriotic and questioned why he was speaking out against his own government.
The speech was warmly welcomed, however, by the religious leaders in attendance that night, and set a firm ground for the growing anti-war movement, which was just establishing itself in early 1967 when he delivered it.
Today the speech is not widely remembered. It is certainly not among the speeches widely taught and quoted in celebrations of King’s legacy.
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Much of the speech feels dated, because it rehashes history and events on the ground that have long faded from memory.
But towards the end, King, as he so often did, took a step back from the news of the day and took a long, eerily prescient look at the future.
He noted that American weapons and troops were being deployed around the world, often supporting corrupt and repressive regimes in the name of anti-communism.
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality ... we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation,” he said.
He said people across the world were asking for justice and change, and the United States had the responsibility and opportunity to help them. That, he said, was the best answer to the dangers of communism, not bombs and guns.
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“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” he said. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
I heard a radio story recently about a newly discovered recording of that speech, which is much clearer than the one existing recording previously known. As the reporter played some of the lines from the later part of the speech, it seemed to me that King was having a prophetic moment just as powerful as his eerie final speech on the eve of his death one year later.
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values,” he said. “There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”
The first part of the Vietnam speech was speaking to the issues of his day. But his conclusion was speaking to issues of our day, and beyond.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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