On Martin Luther King, Jr’s 90th Birthday

Today we US citizens remember the birth of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is on this day that we speak of his many acts of nonviolence, his dedication to civil disobedience (as in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts) or the public marches and speeches which reminded those listening that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He spoke about the dismal conditions of life in a country that segregated and discriminated against blacks. He pointed out the law preventing his people from voting. King spoke of police brutality meted upon black communities. These realities were part of what is known as his “I Have A Dream” speech which was delivered to thousands at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on August 23, 1963. It was a speech typically King – filled with promise yet cautioning that many tough changes would require all people to participate.It was a speech that reminded of our commonality as humans, all of us, black and white. The speech was filled with promise.

The “I Have A Dream” speech and many lines in the body of the speech are often quoted and shared in term papers, dissertations, and on social media in memes and so forth. And yet, to me, the speech that puts Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘on the map’, so to speak, was delivered five years later April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Baptist Church in New York City –it is entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence’. In spite of much opposition and against the advice of many of his fellow preachers, Martin gave a powerful talk chastising the US government for its perpetuation of armed hostilities and interference in the affairs of countries in Southeast Asia,specifically Vietnam.

This one hour speech shone the light on the shenanigans of the US government, destroying any hope of unifying North and South after free and fair elections –which were thwarted by the US. The US sold Americans with the fear of Communism and that Hanoi (North Vietnam) was another tile in the phony “Domino Effect” theory promulgated by the Dulles brothers.Washington knew full well that the Vietnamese in the artificially divided country would elect Ho Chi Minh the leader of North Vietnam and the reunification of the nation would begin. Instead, the US helped to orchestrate an insurgency promoted by the seating of a corrupt leader, from a wealthy Roman Catholic family, Ngo Din Diem. Diem was a brutal dictator who began brutalizing his own people – people that wanted reunification, people in a part of the country that were 80% Buddhist. The US already had military personnel in country—allegedly as ‘advisors’ to the French who occupied Vietnam before the Americans.

King did not mince words. He told the packed church that his conscience “gave me no other choice.” His words were measured and powerful – A time comes when silence is betrayalhe continued. 

Martin risked everything that day – he called out the war machine, he pointed out that war denied the poor, especially poor blacks, uplift as the focus of the US Empire turned toward war pushing all focus and resources towards that end.

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. 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 increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

It is important that every US citizen and many of our friends and allies overseas read the words of this speech carefully. Read the transcript and listen to the audio here. If you share, please read the copyright information on the site.

Take some time to read and/or listen to this historic speech. It is as relevant today as it was back in 1967. And that is a terribly disappointing statement considering how many years have passed. Not only is the US Empire still engaged in war, armed hostilities and invasions of sovereign nations have become the underpinning of our economy. The Empire murdered millions in the American War (as the Vietnamese call it) and have killed millions more since.

In closing, a prophetic quote King included in his speech. A quote from a Vietnamese Buddhist leader:

“Each day the war goes on the hatred increased in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.” 

Dr. King was executed one year to the day of the Riverside speech on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

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