Fifty years ago today, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of his most prophetic and powerful speeches, ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’, at Riverside Church in New York City. One year later – to the day – he was assassinated in Memphis.
King’s words are as urgent and powerful as ever. He declared his opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam in his strongest terms to date, but perhaps more importantly for us, King identifies a broader challenge for the future.
King asks us to confront three evils – racism, extreme materialism, and militarism – with what he calls a “radical revolution of values.” The Beyond Vietnam speech goes far beyond the issue of war to challenge U.S. self-identity, and to shake the very foundations of structural racism, exploitation and militarism.
We need King’s words now more than ever. The Trump Era turns King’s revolution of values on its head, as the president revives our nation’s racism, materialism and militarism in ways we could not have thought possible.
King’s speech details U.S. hypocrisy and crimes in Vietnam. It names the many reasons – moral, economic, and political – the U.S. should have withdrawn from that conflict, which caused so much death and damage at home and abroad.
King opposes the war in Vietnam both because it drains coffers at home, preventing much-needed social programs, and on a deeper level because the war was immoral. He identifies and gives voice to the Vietnamese people and their view of the U.S. war, as well as “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.”
Then King goes deeper. “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” he says. King condemns income inequality, bigotry, U.S. military aggression, “Western arrogance,” and injustices of all kinds. To solve them, he calls us all to revolution.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, ‘This is not just.’
It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just…
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.
King argues for a radical transformation of all aspects of society to make us worthy of the values our nation claims to uphold. He also calls for a new role for the U.S. in the world, a kind of global moral leadership. King is not for the U.S. retreating from the world. On the contrary, he calls for a U.S. which champions global justice, as a brother to all nations.
Martin Luther King’s revolution isn’t a call to overthrow the U.S. political structure. He calls on the people of our country to struggle for a different set of values. King doesn’t call for a revolution from without, but rather asks us to become a global beacon of freedom, justice and equality. What a contrast with Trump’s vision of the world.
Trump’s foreign policy is all about pursuing the narrow interests of U.S. corporations, not about universal values of human rights and equity. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” Donald Trump said “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” echoing the shallow slogan that was once the rallying call of fascists in this country.
Despite the Riverside Church speech’s genius, it was a huge risk for King. He struggled with writing the speech and making such a bold declaration of opposition to the war. Others in the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference warned him off this kind of public statement, as they believed it would derail his authority and the civil right’s movement’s agenda.
Tavis Smiley’s book Death of a King documents how King’s anti-war stance, beginning with the Beyond Vietnam speech, closed doors and led the White House to uninvite him for a visit. Smiley explains further in a Chicago Tribune interview:
The White House called on their black surrogates, if you will, to go after Dr. King. There are lot of people who are going to be shocked when they read this text that the NAACP and the National Urban League came out against Dr. King publicly at that time.
It wasn’t just political and movement leaders that turned on King, it was also the public. The last opinion poll taken during his lifetime showed 75 percent viewed him unfavorably. At the time of his assassination, the man who had become internationally recognized for the moral values of his civil rights leadership was seen as an ingrate or traitor by many at home.
Today, we have a national obsession with King as a martyr, as an “I have a Dream” meme. This hides the reality of his full and remarkable growth into a radical democratic leader. This is in part because this development has never been fully recognized.
The radical King challenged the United States to face its violent role in Southeast Asia, called for a radical redistribution of wealth through the Poor People’s Campaign, called for Christians to live up to the teachings of the Gospel.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at age 39. He was younger than I am today. His natural life certainly could have had him alive today to see that racism, materialism and militarism are alive and well, and to see the Presidency of Donald Trump, who so casually relishes in the very moral corruption that King decried. Despite many gains, many of the problems King identified half a century ago are worse today.
Donald Trump has repeatedly appealed to fear and bigotry, blaming immigrants and Muslims for social problems and violence. While pandering to Black voters, his behavior is dismissive of Black people’s real conditions, and his policies are disastrous for people of color across the country. Trump openly sides with the powerful over the powerless, reversing King’s moral challenge.
There is perhaps no greater example of extreme materialism than Donald Trump, with his lavish lifestyle, relish for excess and opulence. His cabinet gathers that the greatest group of billionaires and corporate elites ever seen in government anywhere. Corporate power has long dominated U.S. politics, but under Trump, corporate power has moved from pulling the strings to running the show.
Trump, who has called himself the most “militaristic person” in the world, has proposed a budget with one of the greatest expansions of military spending in U.S. history, while gutting what few social programs remain. He has casually discussed the use of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation. His boast that he can end conflicts is belied by his glee over U.S. military might.
Trump epitomizes the “giant triplets” – racism, extreme materialism, and militarism – King warns are the greatest threats to our future.
For many years, on April 4, I have attended the annual commemoration of King’s powerful speech in the very nave of Riverside Church where he delivered his remarks.
Hearing King’s voice echo through this historic hall still sends chills, as much for its prescience as for his daunting challenge to all of us to live up to his call for a radical revolution of values.
King’s challenge still rings true today.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message – of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.