Wednesday, September 28, 2022
What Would King Say?
By Yussuf J. Simmonds (Managing Editor)
Published January 11, 2012

What WOULD Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say, were he still among us to observe that – despite naming schools, streets and boulevards … and erecting statues, and monuments in his honor – the country, and indeed the world, seems to ignore the message that he selflessly gave us all. 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, for as he said, “Peace is not just the absence of war, it is the presence of justice.”



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 2012, as the nation celebrates, what would have been his 83rd 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:

O, yes,?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.  


REV. JESSE JACKSON: “Dr. King was a source of inspiration.  Blacks in the South, under the laws of oppressive segregation, were held down by fear; so he had to inspire them to choose hope over fear.  Blacks in the North and in the West, it wasn’t so much fear as it was cynicism: the belief that we could not win.  Many Blacks went North and West where there was a little more dignity than the Southern oppression; they were free but not equal.  Dr. Kings mission was to change the law.  It was a struggle to end (unjust) law.  But it was also to take our consciousness beyond just legal oppression to economic justice.  Many of our freedom allies would not be our economic allies. Dr. King last campaign was to end the war in Vietnam and a war on poverty; and that’s where we are today.”

CHMN. OF CBC., REP. EMANUEL CLEAVER: “No African American alive would ever believe that the final monument on the mall would be that of Martin Luther King Jr.  We, of course, realize that Dr. King is now serving as a reminder to all of us that we must remain vigilant on issues of justice, and his monument, the statue that is now on the mall is a reminder.  He’s looking across the city and across the nation … when you look at the sculpture depicting him and the appearance of his facial expression is very serious.  I’m looking at you guys … stay on the job and do the right thing.”  

XERNONA CLAYTON: “Dr. King was such an unsual man … a real man, in that he was honest and truthful to his convictions.  He felt that he never wanted any monument, any honor, or anything bestowed or directed to him, personally.  If he was here and we needed his approval to have this, we would never have this monument.  But we have to keep in mind that this was a man who … when he got the Nobel (Peace) Prize, and got a monetary attachment with it, he gave it all away.  He was unselfish … a selfless man who cared more about everybody else than himself.  

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: “I think it’s a great honor for Dr. King and for the nation.  I think he belongs in that environment on the mall because I consider him to be one of the fathers of the nation … having led the nation to a new era of racial justice in his lifetime.” 

REV. JAMES LAWSON: “I have mixed feelings about the event, though I look forward to being there.  We have built a monument to a dead hero, and dead heroes are easier to take than live advocates of truth and justice are tolerated.  I see it as a historical moment to be more tactful and powerful than any of us understand.  King was the Moses of the 20th century for Western civilization; he was a Jesus figure of the 20th century.  His voice was the major voice many people around the world heard, and listen for, and by 1967, in the United States, 90 something percent of us Black people said, ‘he speaks for me.’  That has never happened in the history of humankind except for people like (Mahatma) Gandhi of India, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.  But unless Black people, Hispanics and people of goodwill, and women in the United States can really recover that story; we are not going to move to confront our nation, with its obligation to continue this journey.”

DR. MERVYN M. DYMALLY: “As fiery as he was in public life I found him, in private, to be a quiet, modest and unassuming person.  It was my dubious experience to be the last person to drive him from LAX to Anaheim (Orange County) for a meeting for the liberal California Democratic Council, during my tenure as State Senator.  This experience was a major high point in my political career.”

GWEN GREEN (In reading a letter she received by those who are putting on the dedication).  Ms. Green, it was a pleasure speaking with you today as you would join us in the nation’s capital for this important dedication.  We recognized the significance contribution that you’ve made in civil rights struggle and considered an honor to host you.  “It is very significant for the first time we have a Black person on the mall with all the White presidents.”

BEN JEALOUS: “This is an historic moment in civil rights and American history,” stated President Jealous. “I look forward to honoring the life and legacy of Dr. King on the eve of the unveiling of his national memorial.  The work of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not over.  The civil rights community must ensure that his dream becomes a reality.”

JULIANNE MALVEAUX: “So even as a statue opens to the public, doors close to too many Americans.  Even as people throng to celebrate, there are those who are supportive, but who have had nothing to celebrate in a long time.  The debt ceiling has imposed a particular ugliness on the current climate.  As cities gird up for fall and winter, they are grappling with the reality that many will be unable to pay for utilities, and have the possibility of freezing this winter.  Some were buttressed by federal funds, funds that must be cut.  Similarly, there are cities where there is vacant housing and also homelessness.  Why not put some of the homeless into vacant homes.  Banks are often special villains, chasing profit and repelling the people whose dollars have inflated their bottom line.  While (Harry) Johnson’s dream has been realized, Dr. King’s dream for economic justice, which means economic restructuring, remains deferred.  This is a dichotomy, and also a tragedy.”

DIANE E. WATSON: “It is a monument to justice.  He will be the first African American on the mall and that really marks a turning point for America. We have an African America president because of Martin Luther King.  It is the case where he got to the consciousness of America.  So rather than judge the person by the color (of their skin) as Martin Luther King spoke, they judged him by the content.  And so Martin Luther King has a place in the history of the world because he came and saw that civil rights were given to all in this country, the number one country on the globe.”  

WILLIS EDWARDS: “The establishment of this memorial is historic in that our nation’s capitol will now include an African American who has been acclaimed as a peacemaker worldwide.  This memorial recognizes the life themes characterized in all of Dr. King’s speeches of justice, democracy, hope, and love.  His life and this memorial should inspire all of us to be committed to positive change and active citizenship.”

LEON JENKINS: “It’s been a long time in the making but it’s a sure sign that America understands the importance of Dr. King’s contributions to the lives of every American.  He helped change the face of what America looked like in the corporate room, in the boardroom, in politics, and socially.” 

CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS (CBC): “America has changed dramatically in the past five decades.  For people under 50, it is hard for many to imagine life in the 1950’s and 60’s as compared to the America of 2011. Segregated housing, transportation, restrooms, theaters, and restaurants, coupled with the physical presence of racism, and sexism, religious intolerance and painful accusations of communism are all part of the dark past of America’s recent history.   The magnitude of how the Civil Rights movement changed America is truly remarkable and is perhaps without precedent in modern history.   Dr. King’s contributions to the changes of the last 50 years highlights the work of many who sacrificed and challenged America to reflect the practices in the words of the founding fathers.”

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: “I am honored to be a part of this historic occasion, for the Dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.  The honoring of this Great American Hero also inspires us to remember the Great Heroes and Sheroes of the Civil Rights Movement.   Through the Civil Rights Movement, America has seen many positive changes in this ongoing struggle for Equal Opportunity and Justice.  The Vision statement for this memorial dedicates the memorial to the Tenants of Dr. King’s American Dream of Freedom, Democracy, and Opportunity for all.  There remains so much to be done to achieve this Dream for all American citizens.  We have a responsibility to enhance the Legacy of Dr. King and the many other Civil Rights leaders who gave their lives, by being activist citizens on behalf of all, but especially those who are less fortunate.  We have to Guard the Freedoms and Democracy that Dr. King lived and died for. It is imperative that the history of the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King and his great work be transferred to our next generations.”

ELAINE EASON STEELE: “Rosa Parks would be just as excited as the rest of the country at the great honor being bestowed on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a leader and role model for social justice.  Dr. King’s philosophy is more important today because of the mobilization to turn the clock back to the 1950’s. When Rosa Parks’ arrest on Dec 1, 1955 lead to the successful 381 Day Montgomery Bus Boycott, thrust a 26-year old Montgomery, AL. pastor into national prominence. The rest is history.”

ROBERT “BOB” FARRELL:  “ It is important to me for two reasons. Number one: to see the acknowledgement of a man who deserves all the contributions and praise and tributes that are due our own heroes, at the same time, I view it as something that represents the collective ‘us’, because at a point, it’s not just Martin Luther King, Jr., the man, it’s the movement he led that made us proud.  And he worked his way to the top, he won our collaboration and our cooperation, regardless of the different bases from which we came in the struggle, and it is most appropriate that this American hero has such a dedicated statue right there in the center of our American government.”

DR. MARK PERRAULT: “He was a brilliant, dedicated community servant known especially for his ideas regarding non-violence and he also had a unique visionary intellectual quality built into his DNA.”

MARC H. MORIAL: “National Mall on Sunday is not just a historic occasion for African-Americans, but a milepost on the nation’s journey to social justice.  My own emotions are touched on so many levels—pride as an African-American, as a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity—King’s own fraternity and the organization that has driven the project from the beginning, as the leader of a national civil rights and economic empowerment organization, but mostly as an American.  For all the mistakes that have been made attempting to carry out the principles outlined by the Founding Fathers, the principles themselves endure: All men—and let us not forget to include women—are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Perhaps more than anyone in American history, Dr. King embodied that ideal.” ?      

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