Dr. King’s words in 1967 would be appropriate today substituting Vietnam with Iraq and/or Afghanistan – the dream is still unfulfilled. A look at parts of his speech is very instructive.
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
On April 4 1967, exactly one year before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he delivered an address to the Clergy and Laymen, concerned about the Vietnam War, and its devastating effects relative to America’s domestic policies and moral standing. The speech was entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” and he directed it as a call to the conscience of America. In 2011, as the nation celebrates, what would have been his 82nd birthday, his words then were ideally suited not only to today’s wars but also today’s society in general.
Though he had been addressing the clergy, his message was to the nation as a whole. For as he emphasized, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” it reflected the nation in the 1960s and it certainly mirrors the nation in the 21st century. Dr. King words were/are prophetic.
In dissecting Dr. King’s speech, it is important to notice the similarities. For as he said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal; that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam” (Iraq/Afghanistan).
Dr. King continued, “Over the past two years, 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 (Iraq/Afghanistan), many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.”
(That brings to mind Congresswoman Barbara Lee when she – the only one, out of 535 (100 senators and 435 representatives) – voted against the authorization of use of force following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. This made her a pariah as she received threats against her life and the resentment of her colleagues).
“Since I am a preacher by trade, 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 (Iraq/Afghanistan) and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America,” Dr. King said. The economic devastation that continues to ravage the country bears witness to his words about the struggle that he (then) and others (now) are waging against the overseas conflicts. There is a direct connection between those conflicts and the misery that has befallen many Americans: the unemployed, the homeless, the poor, etc.
“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle,” Dr. King went on, “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 (Iraq/Afghanistan) and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of 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 (Iraq/Afghanistan) 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,” he said.
Listening to various news reports about the economy, unemployment and the drastic cuts in programs that are essential for ‘life, liberty, health, education, welfare and the pursuit of happiness,’ and the cries of massive suffering from coast to coast, makes Dr. King’s words more powerful in his absence than when he walked among “us.”
“My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years – especially the last three summers,” Dr. King emphasized. “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action,” he pleaded. “But they asked – and rightly so – what about Vietnam (Iraq/Afghanistan)? They 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. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
And he raised his voice and shouted from the mountaintop about the things that he said that were wrong with “my own government.” It may even be considered hypocritical that as “we” honor his life and legacy with parades and speeches, naming streets, boulevards, schools and colleges in his name, “we” do not honor the fundamental ethic of his life and the dream that he left “us” by promoting peace more vigorously than we do. For as another great American – President Dwight D. Eisenhower – had warned the nation in his farewell address in 1961, years before Dr. King, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Another great leader – President Nelson Mandela – said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
In concluding, “For those who ask the question, ‘Aren’t you a civil rights leader?’ and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: ‘To save the soul of America,'” Dr. King articulated, “We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that Black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet, I swear this oath”
The world has arrived at that hour and the words of Dr. King need to be listened to and acted upon: Iraq/Afghanistan, at present, is the Vietnam about which Dr. King was speaking.