Martin Luther King, Jr., on Vietnam—and Today

Martin Luther King, Jr., is best known for his speech “I Have a Dream.” Relatively few people know of his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered on April 4, 1967, one year before he was assassinated. It is a prophetic, unsettling, and radical speech that still resonates today. It is little wonder that Americans prefer to remember the optimism of “I Have a Dream” versus the profound moral, political, and economic challenge that King lays down in this speech. What follows are highlights from this speech. The full speech can be found here.

Martin Luther King leads an anti-war demonstration in Chicago on March 21, 1967.

Martin Luther King leads an anti-war demonstration in Chicago on March 21, 1967.

“Beyond Vietnam” delivered at Riverside Church, New York, New York, 4 April 1967

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak…Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

….Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life.

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 the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. 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.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.

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.” …The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand[s] on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” ….A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

A genuine revolution of values means…that…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 and unconditional love for all mankind.

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace…and justice. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

 

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. Grove/Atlantic published his novel The Sympathizer in 2015 (winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize), and will publish his short story collection The Refugees in 2017. He also wrote Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. He is the editor of diaCRITICS.


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