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A Powerful Warning Still Relevant Today

Dr. King’s antiwar speech 50 years later

Marian Wright Edelman | 4/11/2017, 3:06 p.m.
Fifty years ago on April 4, 1967, our prophet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the historic speech “Beyond Vietnam: ...
Marian Wright Edelman

Fifty years ago on April 4, 1967, our prophet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the historic speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at New York City’s Riverside Church. It was his first major public antiwar speech and a powerful warning that a rise in racial hatred, militarism and violence could destroy America.

In his essay “The Land Beyond,” originally published in Sojourners magazine in 1983, Dr. Vincent Harding, the brilliant historian and theologian and close King friend who helped draft the speech, wrote that King’s message not only required us to struggle once more with the meaning of his words, but it also presses us to wrestle as he did, with all of the tangled, bloody, and glorious meaning of our nation (and ourselves), its purposes (and our own), its direction (and our own), its hope (and our own).” His instructions for how we should reread the speech are even more searing today.

Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War specifically but also arguing that “the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” and that it was time for our nation to undergo “a radical revolution of values.”

“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,” King said. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

President Trump’s very first budget blueprint, which proposes an increase in defense spending for 2018 of $54 billion (a 10 percent increase) with $54 billion in cuts to programs serving the poor and vulnerable and addressing basic needs and other non-defense discretionary spending to pay for it, plainly shows Dr. King’s message is not being heard or heeded.

Just as starkly and presciently, Dr. King went on to say the revolution in our national values must reject nationalism and hate: “A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our 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 and unconditional love for all mankind.”

Headlines around the world show many nations are teetering on the precipice of this path of hate right now — including our own. So how far down will we let our leaders go without speaking and standing up to intolerance?

Dr. King reminded: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” “We must move past indecision to action . . . 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.”

Exactly one year after “Beyond Vietnam,” on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. In the decades since, our nation has continued to wrestle mightily with our purpose, direction, and sense of justice.

In 2017 we are at a very dangerous crossroads. I hope a critical mass of us will, like Dr. King, stand up and act saying: “We have come too far to continue being dragged down those dark and shameful corridors. We must turn around before it is too late.”

So let us make a mighty noise until our leaders with tin ears hear and reverse course.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund.