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On this week’s Peace of History:
We celebrated the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, but his message and example cannot be limited to a single federal holiday, nor to any one speech, nor to the sanitized stories we tell to children in our schools. The importance of his vision would still be vast if his work had been completed; as it stands now, with so much of his work left unfinished in a world on fire, the value of Dr. King’s message has reached a new kind of urgency.
No single speech of Dr. King can encapsulate his message, but in the one he delivered on April 4, 1967, Dr. King revealed a deeper, wider analysis of racism as part of an interconnected system of oppression. Delivered to an audience of over 3000 at Riverside Church in New York City exactly one year before his assassination, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” is widely considered his most controversial speech: his most emphatic denunciation of American military involvement in Vietnam, and of war in general. It was in many ways a watershed moment: the culmination of years of philosophical development and lived experience that had been transforming the Reverend for years -- a process that turned him from a reformer to a revolutionary.
It is no wonder, then, that Dr. King devotes much of the beginning of the speech to justify his delivery at all. He appeals not only to conscience and faith, but also to practicality. Repeatedly, the Reverend explains the hypocrisy of using violence for good, how a society that prioritizes war cannot also prioritize racial and economic justice, and how the combination of racism and capitalism feeds poverty, which in turn feeds military recruitment, which then feeds war:
“[The young gang members of Chicago and Cleveland] 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[...]
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[...]
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.”
This broader analysis shows how Dr. King’s understanding of justice had expanded beyond the silo of civil rights to include an end to militarism and war, as well as to include the leveling of economic, social, and political power. It was only after achieving some victories in the struggle to end Southern segregation that Dr. King realized that he was integrating his people into “a burning house.” Indeed, according to historian David Garrow, Dr. King would say to his staff that he “didn’t believe that capitalism as it was constructed could meet the needs of poor people, and that what we might need to look at was a kind of socialism, but a democratic form of socialism.”
In “Beyond Vietnam,” the Reverend continued with his analysis of the relationship between capitalism, imperialism, and war, warning that “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” Dr. King attempted to connect the revolutionary American values of self-determination and independence to the revolutionary efforts of colonized peoples in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to throw off their colonial masters and establish their own nation-states -- while pointing out that the United States had now flipped to the side of colonizers, exploiters, and reactionaries:
"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. We must rapidly begin [applause], 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."
Dr. King’s understanding of racism as a part of a greater, interconnected system of oppression was spurred on by a few factors. A lesser known attempt by Malcolm X to reach a mutual understanding just before his death in 1965 seemed to retune Dr. King’s ears to the unique problems in the North. So, too, did a new generation of young, dissatisfied African-Americans calling for “black power” and their explorations of how to achieve it. And then, of course, the urban riots of 1967 added a whole new urgency to the persistent crisis of economic injustice.
By the later 1960s, that path Dr. King was walking may have become less clear even to himself, but only because his vision had recently expanded, and needed time to adjust focus. Still, he walked, holding fast to his belief in the Promised Land of justice, and firm in his conviction that the manner by which one moves is as important as the destination -- only through radical nonviolent struggle can we transform our world into one of true peace and justice.
Let us catch up to this trailblazer, and then let us surpass him, continuing not only his work, but also the continuous broadening of his vision. Like Dr. King, at times it will be difficult to see the path. But let us share his conviction, and continue on, for:
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every [person] of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest[...] We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
Vincent Harding. Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient hero. Orbis Books, 1996.