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Martin Luther King Junior’s Other Speech

On the annual holiday commemorating civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior, we often hear excerpts from his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. That speech captured the uplifting spirit of the movement to end racial discrimination and, some contend, contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 roughly six months later. Unless this year is different from the past, though, we are likely to overlook one of Dr. King’s most challenging and thought provoking speeches.

Dr. King’s activism did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights bill, nor did his oratory end with the “I Have A Dream” speech. Over the last four years of his lifetime Dr. King became an outspoken advocate for peace and economic justice for all citizens in the world. In April 1967, Dr. King gave a speech at Riverside Baptist Church that is as relevant today as it was in 1967. Called the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, his address to a group called the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam included this admonition:

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.

This warning seems particularly pertinent today, because the “giant triplets” have not been conquered and our devotion to “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights” is stronger than ever.

Racism, the first “giant triplet”, is with us more than ever. Over the past several decades we’ve witnessed a re-segregation of our schools and neighborhoods and observed a decline in civility in our public discourse on race issues. Worse, we just concluded an election where 14 states enacted voter suppression laws, some of which federal courts eliminated because they unfairly limited the participation of African American voters. And the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck instituted in 27 states to address “voter fraud” may have prevented over 7,000,000 African American, Asian, and Hispanics from voting.

The extreme materialism Dr. King referenced is our consumer culture that is driven by our belief that “more” is “better”, that possessions— i.e. property rights— are more important than human relationships. To change this perspective, Dr. King advocated a “true revolution of values”, a “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society”. Looking at his world in 1967, Dr. King urged a chance in perspective:

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.

Fifty years later we continue to value things more than people, continue to live in a world and a country that has a glaring contrast of poverty and wealth, and continue to ally with “landed gentry” whose governing principles are antithetical to ours.

And militarism, the third “giant triplet”, dominates our globe today as much as it did in 1967. In identifying the changes needed to achieve his “true revolution of values” Dr, King wrote:

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Fifty years after this speech, our nation still spends more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift; and many would argue that as a result we are getting ever closer to the spiritual death Dr. King foretold. One of the primary reasons Dr. King decided to oppose the war in Vietnam was the realization that the resources needed to fight poverty were being spent on the military. The situation is no different today. The money spent on fifteen years of war in Afghanistan and fourteen years in Iraq is compounding our debt problems and taking resources away from “programs that contribute to social uplift”.

Were Dr. King alive today I expect he would be discouraged to see the backsliding that has occurred in race issues, frustrated to see how we continue to accept huge disparities in wealth and place a premium on “things”, and disheartened to see how much money we spend on the military. But I also expect he would urge us to seek the same solution he advocated fifty years ago:

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism…

(O)ur loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing — embracing and unconditional love for all mankind… When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality…

When I recently read Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech I was struck by its prescience and its applicability to our times. But I was also struck by the sense that the speech has been “overlooked” because it’s message is as unsettling today as it was in 1967. Lyndon Johnson, the President of the United States who fought hard to pass the Civil Rights legislation four years earlier, felt betrayed by Dr. King’s opposition to a war the President felt was justified. And Dr. King’s colleagues in the Civil Rights movement also questioned his decision to take a stand on the War in Vietnam, fearing that his focus on the Anti-War issue diverted attention away from their cause. “And 0ver 160 newspapers wrote editorials condemning Dr. King for his “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

As we commemorate Dr. King this year on the eve of the inauguration of a Presidential campaign that divided our country, I believe the overarching message of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech is crucial. As we passionately debate contentious issues in the coming years we need to heed Dr. King’s words from fifty years ago:

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.

Note: This appeared as an op ed in today’s edition of the Valley News

 

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  1. Byron Knutsen
    January 17, 2017 at 12:39 am

    So true – so hopefully it will be published taught again somewhere.

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