January 3, 2007
Dr. King’s peace activism overlooked
©2007 Daniel A. Brown
On the evening of April 4th, 1967, exactly a year before he would be assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mounted the podium at New York City’s prestigious Riverside Church and proceeded to give a revolutionary sermon condemning the war in Vietnam. Speaking at the behest of a group of antiwar clergy, King gazed down at the packed crowd of 4,000 and intoned, "A time comes when silence is betrayal and that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
Speaking out publicly against the war was a new direction for King and one which disturbed many of his supporters who feared, rightly, that by doing so, the Civil Rights movement would alienate President Lyndon Johnson who had been a staunch and fearless advocate on their behalf. King knew this, but as a devout Christian and a minister of conscience, he had attained the revelation that the next step to make America a truly just society was to speak out against both war and poverty.
“Over the past two years,” King continued, “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?’"
By 1967, the Vietnam War had mutated from an irritating foreign policy concern that Johnson was always reluctant about conducting into a full-blown cancer that was killing America from within (and Vietnam from without). The tragedy for the president was that his heart had always been centered on the formulation of his Great Society which included the elimination of poverty, making him one of the few, if only, presidents in the modern era to really care about the those Americans who were stuck on the bottom of the economic ladder. King obviously shared the same concerns but, unlike Johnson, came to the realization that both the War on Poverty and the War in Vietnam could not be maintained concurrently; that every dollar thrown down this murderous military sinkhole was a dollar stolen from the poor and the helpless.
King understood, too, the injustice of a war in which Black Americans were taking on a disproportionate share of fighting “for freedom” in Vietnam while being denied that same freedom at home. “We were taking the black young men,” King observed, “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. And 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. And 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.”
But King did not limit his apprehension merely to members of his own race but to the nation as a whole, looking into its heart and soul and seeing a crisis that needed addressing in ways that only he could articulate. “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King concluded, “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.”
These were, and still are, dangerous words. Words that have been expressed throughout history by saints like Jesus and Gandhi who ultimately pay a fatal price for speaking them. Humanity has always had a difficult time with such uncomfortable personages and finds it easier to venerate them when they are safely dead and quiet.
So it is not surprising that Dr. King’s passion to end war and poverty, a passion that consumed him during the final year of his life, is largely overlooked by the media on the holiday that bears his name. Instead, they trot out the usual “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington which, as noble as it was, is still an evasion of the person King evolved into at the end. American culture makes any radical message safe and sanitized. In King’s case, it has become safer to focus on a nebulous dream than on a harsh reality that needs work and attention. Therefore, we never hear about his planned Poor People’s March on Washington or about him speaking out to 200,000 peace marchers in front of the United Nations three days before the Riverside speech.
As we prepare to honor Dr. King’s legacy of peace and social justice, let us reflect again that nearly forty years later, “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” are still standing in the way of the American Dream. That the trillion dollars we will eventually waste in Iraq (which, like Vietnam, was never a threat to the United States) is a trillion dollars stolen from Americans, many of whom are still struggling and hungry in a land of plenty. Were he alive today, this is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would say to a nation that still honors the messenger but continues to ignore his message.