This week marked the 50-year anniversary of one of Martin Luther King’s most important and prescient speeches. But there’s a reason most people don’t know that.
Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was delivered to the over 3,000 people who packed Riverside Church in New York City’s Morning Side Heights neighborhood where it continues to “live out the radical gospel call,” since its founding in 1930. The address has fallen through the cracks of conventional American and Civil Rights History: it is eclipsed by happening to fall on the same day as Dr. King’s assassination, which has rightfully claimed April 4th; and it has been drowned out by King’s famous and iconic “I have a dream,” speech at the March on Washington in 1963. But there is another reason the speech has received less attention and praise than it deserves. It is radical and dangerous, in the best sense of the word. King’s indictment of “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism,” caused many liberals, Democrats, and civil rights leaders to turned their back on King at the time. And the speech continues to disrupt the sanitized and white washed history narrative that distorts the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King today.
“It would be a mistake to read Dr. King’s speech as merely an antiwar statement. It reflected his widening worldview that chronic domestic poverty and military adventurism overseas infected the wealthiest nation on earth just as indelibly as did deep-rooted racism. It went to the heart of the multilayered social and political conflicts of the 1960s — and, like all great rhetoric, continues to speak to us today.”
But there is another point that is crucial to today’s political context and it gets to (part of) the heart of why the speech fails to receive its due. King’s critique of racism, capitalism, and militarism as well his confrontation with mainstream liberals, Democrats and Civil Rights leaders, offer a blueprint for social justice that is as relevant today as it was then.
King’s speech demonstrates his evolution from liberal to revolutionary, from a more limited focus on civil rights issues to a more radical and what we would now call intersectional critique of the overlapping forces of capitalism, militarism and racism. FBI wiretaps reveal King, in the fall of 1965, struggling for the right response to the Vietnam War’s build-up. . He recognized “how immoral” we were to be over there and thought that “someone should outline how wrong we are.” But he decided that he would “withdraw temporarily” from opposing the war. “Sometimes,” he said, “the public is not ready to digest the truth.”
But by 1967 King was ready to present the truth about the developing war. He had already proclaimed that “we are involved in the class struggle,” questioned “the capitalistic economy,” understood that “we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… a revolution of values and other things,” and that “that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together,” and endorsed “guaranteed income…”
It is certainly no surprise that Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.), the GOP presidential nominee in 1964, commented that the speech “could border a bit on treason.” But liberal leaders and media were no less critical. “What is that goddamn n**** preacher doing to me?” President Johnson responded in the Oval Office. Nearly over 150 newspapers criticized King’s speech. The New York Times attacked King for the “fusing” together ” war in Vietnam with the cause of Negro equality in the United States” which were “two public problems that are distinct and separate.” It warned that, “By drawing them together, Dr. King has done a disservice to both. The moral issues in Vietnam are less clear-cut than he suggests; the political strategy of uniting the peace movement and the civil rights movement could very well be disastrous for both causes.” hey called his words “facile” and “slander,” and said “to divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating,” especially when he needed to focus on “the intractability of slum mores and habits.” The Washington Post said King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” Time ran an article called “Confusing the Cause” that called King a “drawling bumpkin, so ignorant that he had not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his native haunts and away from his natural calling.” The Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper, criticized King for “tragically misleading” Black American on things that were “too complex for simple debate.”
The only civil rights organization to support King’s speech was SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). Even King’s own Southern Christian Leadership Conference, criticized the man who had founded them. The NAACP’s Roy Wilkins said that “civil rights groups do not have enough information on Vietnam, or on foreign policy, to make it their cause.”
King opened his speech by reflecting on his internal struggle:
I come to this great magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization that brought us together, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
He spoke to the difficulty of challenging conventional wisdom as well as how daunting engaging international and entrenched conflicts:
The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. 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. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. 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. But we must move on.
King expressed optimism about the increased courage and radicalism of some religious leaders, including himself:
We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
He linked the fight against racism to the fights against war.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live. In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight…
For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear.
King outlined his motives for challenging the War in Vietnam: “Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision.” The War took away resources from the War on Poverty:
There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
The Americans soldiers in Vietnam were disproportionately poor and Black:
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
It undermined the credibility and viability of non-violence, which King himself was preaching:
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked 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.
He saw the struggle against war as part of Christianity:
I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
He called for an end of all U.S. foreign interventions which stood with dictators and against the people:
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. So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.
He critiqued the military industrial complex
It is with such activity that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. 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.
And in one of his most frequently cited passages, 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.”
And he called for a revolutionary spirit which would be required to take on poverty, racism and militarism.
Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”