Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of his most important (and controversial) speeches at Riverside Church in New York City. It was, King said, "a passionate plea to my beloved nation," a plea not focused on the struggle for civil rights in the United States but on the war in Vietnam.
As he opened the speech, King confessed that he had struggled to "break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart." In an op-ed published in today's New York Times, David J. Garrow, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, describes how King had come to the point where he felt it necessary to make explicit the links that tied racism to materialism and militarism.
What often sparks the awakening of conscience, both for individuals and for nations, is the dawning awareness of a contradiction. We are forced to admit that we have said one thing and done another, that we have acted in ways that belie our beliefs, that we have demanded justice from one party but not another. We come to understand, in other words, that others may see our hypocrisy as readily as we see theirs. Dr. King acknowledged before the audience at Riverside that he had become aware of a contradiction in his own life when young black men in "the ghettos of the North"--young men to whom he was recommending non-violent struggle against injustice--asked him, "What about Vietnam?" "They asked," King said, "if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. 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. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
The Riverside speech was not the first time that Dr. King had focused his moral insight and his rhetorical skill on the Vietnam War. But in April 1967, nine months before the Tet offensive began to persuade many Americans that their government had been lying to them about the war's progress, such a forceful statement against the war was a shock even to some of King's most ardent supporters. When King said "I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted," some of his opponents imagined they were hearing the words of a traitor.
Dr. King offered many reasons to oppose the war--its diversion of the American government from the unfulfilled promises of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs; its disproportionate impact on the poor who had no means of avoiding the draft; its obvious contravention of the Gospel of Christ; and, of course, its impact on the Vietnamese people themselves. And, halfway through the speech, he called for concrete steps toward peace, including an immediate end to the bombing. (When he urged that a date be established for the removal of foreign troops from Vietnam, the audience broke into applause for the first time.) Only at that point, however, did King begin to reveal his larger theme. "I wish to go on now," he said, "to say something even more disturbing."
The speech was called "Beyond Vietnam," and here's why:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. [sustained applause] So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
King argued that "we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values." To do so, he said, "we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. 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."
The further King went in his plea for a "revolution of values," the more prophetic his words became. A sample:
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
It is perhaps not surprising that John Lewis, who was present both for this speech and for King's more famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, considered the anti-war speech at the Riverside Church to be his greatest. It "seems to carry the greater weight of prophecy," Benjamin Hedin writes. The most prophetic words, spoken near the end of the speech, may well be these: "If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."
Read or, better yet, listen to Dr. King's speech here.