"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dr. King - Beyond Vietnam

Dear Friends,

Continuing my writings on Martin Luther King, Jr., it is a particular pleasure on Dr. King's birthday to share a revision of an article I wrote in 2003 to show how he evolved far beyond the "civil rights" leadership for which he is best known. This post is a bit longer than usual, but I hope you will find it worth reading. In a time of unparalleled military spending by the United States along with an overwhelming focus on military solutions, Dr. King's message is needed more than ever.

At a time when our nation once again is embroiled in occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is timely to consider the speech delivered by Dr. King nearly 42 years ago when our nation was immersed in another foreign misadventure. Dr. King delivered his "Beyond Vietnam" speech at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. It was an extraordinary speech in which he questioned not only the role of the United States in the world, but also the very nature of our economic system.

When we hear about Dr. King – generally once a year around the time of his birthday, January 15th – the news media refers to him as "the slain civil rights leader." But Dr. King was much more than that, and it is sad that our national news media have never come to terms with all that Dr. King stood for. The TV images the media convey are generally the same ones – battling segregation in Birmingham in 1963; reciting his dream of racial harmony in Washington in 1963; marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965; and lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis in 1968.

What about the period from 1965 to 1968? In the early 1960s when Dr. King was challenging legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies, showing graphic footage of police dogs, bullwhips and cattle prods used against southern African Americans who sought the right to vote or eat at a public lunch counter. After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965 Dr. King began challenging our nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that the civil rights laws meant nothing without human rights, including economic rights. He spoke out against the huge gaps between rich and poor, and called for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power.

By 1967 Dr. King had become one of the country’s most prominent opponents of the Vietnam War as well as a staunch critic of overall United States foreign policy. In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech, Dr. King made a significant leap from fighting for civil rights for African-Americans to morally challenging U.S. dominion over the rest of the world. The "Beyond Vietnam" speech resonates as strongly today as it did then.

Dr. King spoke of the difficulty of working for peace in an atmosphere of mass conformity. "Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men (sic) 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." He went on to say that, "the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.
We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak." There is no other choice for us, because, "silence is betrayal."

Dr. King saw the connection between war and the evisceration of social programs in this country. He "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 (sic) and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube." Dr. King saw "war as an enemy of the poor".

Further along, Dr. King spoke of his "commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ." He was amazed that people would ask him why he was speaking against the war. "Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men (sic)—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully he died for them?" He went on to say that as children of the living God, "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 (sic)."

Dr. King spoke of "a far deeper malady within the American spirit" which, I believe, is greed. He said that it is our "refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments" that governs our foreign policy, and makes the United States the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." He called for a "radical revolution of values" wherein we "shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society." He said that playing "the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside…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."

Dr. King was not afraid to give a dire warning to the American people that, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." He hammered away at the need for everyone to speak out and use the most creative methods of protest possible, not just against the war, but also for "significant and profound change in American life and policy." He believed that, "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." The sword that we carry is love. "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word."

As he neared the end of his speech Dr. King stated that, "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now." Time does not stop for us to sit and ponder our actions. The time is now. "Now let us begin. Let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world." I call upon each of you to consider Dr. Kings words of 35 years ago and consider how they speak to you today. The sense of urgency today is great. The odds are great and the struggle is hard. But we have no other choice if we are to build a better world for all. We must act, whatever the cost. To be successful, we need to be in solidarity with each other, in our congregations and communities as well as with people throughout the world.

Martin Luther King Jr. left us with a beautiful legacy. He lives on through his words and beckons us to continue the work of peace and justice. The best way that we can remember and honor him is to work to build bridges of peace and understanding. Dr. King said that, "there is such a thing as being too late." Let us not be too late. Let us, every one of us, act now, and not rest until the job is done. Let each of us make that choice so that, "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."



Notes: This blog post is a revision of an article I wrote in 2003. Excerpts from Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech were taken from A Call To Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, Copyright 2001. You can read the unabridged text of Dr. King’s speech (along with his other speeches) at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project.

Photo Credit: The iconic photo of Dr. King juxtaposed with the photo of Gandhi was taken by photojounalist, Bob Fitch.  Bob documented some of the most important social movements of the 60s and 70s, and has spent most of his life engaged in peace and justice work.

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