On the occasion of MLK Day here in the United States, I wanted to post about something that I think gets short shrift when we talk about Dr. Martin Luther King’s towering legacy: his opposition to the war in Vietnam and his indictments of American militarism. As America continues to make unending and devastating wars in other countries, Dr. King’s words perhaps hold even more currency now, nearly 50 years after he uttered them.
In school we typically learn the high points of the Civil Rights movement: the sit-ins, the nonviolent protests, the marches, the Nobel Peace Prize, the “I Have a Dream” speech. But rarely do we hear anymore about the divisions in the Civil Rights movement, especially over the issue of the Vietnam war.
(Sidenote: Although I haven’t yet seen it, the recent release of Ava DuVernay’s film Selma seems to go a good way toward educating us about the struggles behind organizing and holding together a diverse movement, even before the Vietnam war began. I’ve also recently finished reading Tavis Smiley & David Ritz’s book Death of a King, about the last year of Dr. King’s life, which gives some excellent insight into the increasing divisions in the movement and Dr. King’s own hesitations about the future direction of the SCLC, his organization.)
Exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam,” in which he spoke about why opposing the war and fighting for civil rights were inherently linked.
But even though he saw these connections, Dr. King was told by many–friend and foe alike–to “stay in your lane,” that is, to lead the civil rights movement and not to involve himself in anything else, to stay out of the peace movement so that he didn’t muddy the waters and confuse the issues. Even the people closest to him argued with him to keep his mouth closed about the war and focus on uniting the increasingly divided movement.
Over and over again this happens to people fighting oppression. Even when they can recognize that all oppression is connected and that to fight for one means to fight for them all, to fight for the poor in America means to fight for the poor everywhere, to fight for peace on the streets of America means to indict the military actions of America overseas, even when social justice warriors can see that all of these things are connected, they are told to stick to one issue. When they speak out about something that’s “not their issue,” that is when the voices rise and call out, “Stick to what you know! Don’t confuse the issues.”
By April 4, 1967, though, Dr. King felt he could no longer be silent about the increasing devastation at home and abroad brought about by the war in Vietnam. He saw that the poor sons of America were being sent to kill the poor sons and daughters of Vietnam, that the violence erupting on the streets of America’s cities came from the same oppressions being visited upon the people of foreign lands. And he saw that it was all being done in the name of the righteous mission of “freedom” without actually making anyone free. In fact, it was enslaving American souls of all colors all over again.
Dr. King’s words echo loudly even 50 years later as American militarism continues to spread under that same delusion of spreading “freedom.” Below are some words that I have found particularly resonant. Anytime Dr. King says “Vietnam,” we can substitute any one of the many conflicts–public and covert–in which America finds itself in 2015. You can read and hear the entire “Beyond Vietnam” speech here.
The war as a drain on resources for helping the poor:
A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. 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, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on 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 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.
Speaking out about the violence of the war:
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. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” 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 the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
On the duty of speaking out against all oppression:
We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
Compassion requires self-reflection:
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
A “radical revolution of values”:
It is with such activity that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], 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.
Where we put our resources is where we put our souls:
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Hate is not the answer:
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. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
Love and compassion are the answer:
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
So as we all enjoy a day off, I hope we’ll also reflect on how Dr. King’s words still touch us today.