Tuesday, April 4, marked the forty-ninth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But what many people don’t realize, despite knowing a great deal about what happened on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, is that exactly one year before that fateful day, King delivered one of the most consequential speeches of his life. Fifty years ago this week, he spoke at Riverside Church in New York on the subject of “Beyond Vietnam.”
King took a lot of heat for this speech. Some within the civil rights movement felt that he was abandoning the central struggle by offering his opinion on the war in Vietnam. President Johnson, with whom King had had at least a reasonable working relationship to that point, froze him out because of his criticisms. Others saw him as unpatriotic and out of his depth. The if-you-don’t-love-it-leave-it crowd viewed any criticism of US foreign policy as out of bounds. Many people in the country resembled the offended parishioner of the old joke, who felt King had “left off preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.”
But having read the speech in its entirety the other day, I have to say I found King’s grasp of the historical and political intricacies of the Vietnam conflict impressive, and I saw nothing that conflicted with what I know of his other work. By 1967 he had already begun to shift his attention from a narrow focus on civil rights to a broader concern for ending poverty. Many of his arguments in “Beyond Vietnam” extended his concern for the poor of the US to the marginalized masses in southeast Asia and around the world.
I was also struck by the prescience of what King had to say fifty years ago. So many of the issues he raised in 1967 continue to plague us in 2017. Consider the parallels between the political climate of the Vietnam era and the stridently “America First” rhetoric of the Trump Administration. Consider the parallels between LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam conflict and the increases in military spending at the expense of domestic social programs and poverty-focused foreign assistance in Trump’s proposed budget. Consider the parallels between the injustices and crimes perpetrated in the name of an ideological crusade against communism in the 1960s and those perpetrated today in the name of a similar crusade against terrorism. It’s all so hauntingly, depressingly familiar.
Without any further commentary, I want to share a few excerpts from King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. You can decide for yourself if the the parallels I have discerned are real or imaginary. And we can decide together how we will respond to the challenges we face today. Will we speak the truth with courage, as Dr. King did, heedless of the consequences, or will we choose a more comfortable, less controversial course? Either way, we have to make a choice. We deceive ourselves if we think we can safely sit this one out.
I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. 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.
On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
[A] positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons…. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
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 [hu]mankind. This oft misunderstood 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 [humanity]. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response…. 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.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. 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.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.
And if we will only make the right choice … we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of [kinship]. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.