Beyond Vietnam

    On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I would like to focus on his opposition to the War in Vietnam and his reasons for putting as much energy into that struggle as he did on top of the pivotal role he played in the Civil Rights Movement. Many of his allies and his enemies criticized him for his outspoken opposition to the war for many different reasons. The clearest answer to all on the matter that I have found was given in 1967 at the Riverside Church when he was addressing a meeting sponsored by a group called: Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The speech is titled: Beyond Vietnam

    I strongly recommend that all 12 pages be read to appreciate the extent King would not let quality of life in this nation be separated from the question of what we do or not do in the world in our name. It does not have the same meaning if quoted alone without having read what precedes it but I will quote a bit at the end that speaks to how much further we have to go to have something like progress from Dr. King’s point of view:

    Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets?

    The logic of equal opportunity in our society will break down if it can only be supported through the exploitation of people in other societies.


    You can hear MLK delivering this speech, 4 April 1967, (56 minutes and worth every minute in listening to it), at a Stanford site link, which also has the text. Almost exactly a year later, MLK was assassinated, by a 'lone nut'.

    As with the JFK assassination, the lone nut never stood trial, and we were absolutely assured there was no conspiracy involved with the murder. As Gore Vidal once noted, "it is an article of faith that there are no conspiracies in American life."

    A slightly better audio of the speech is at the Internet Archive as a downloadable which unzips as an MP3.


    I was an eyewitness to this history . . .


    I posted the following as part of a comment over in Wattree's blog thread...

    In April 1967, when I was 21 years old, while serving in the US Navy, I was in New York City to compete in an indoor track and field meet at the Garden as a member of the All US Military Track Team. A fellow Army friend on the team asked me if I'd like to accompany him to a scheduled speech of Dr. King's at Riverside Church. It was the infamous "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." Later, a year to the day he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.


    An American Prophet... a true visionary... taken from us way to early...



    Pondering this speech from the distance of nearly forty seven years, I am struck by how methodically Martin Luther King Jr.  always balanced the needs of the moment with a demand to anticipate the future.  Ever wielding the scourge against procrastination, he also demanded that we constantly draw maps of the future.  

    A map of the future could be called a dream. In the lexicon of King, having a dream is central to keeping a struggle alive in the moment. In the context of this speech, however, such a map is more about creating a design of something that needs to be made.

    One essential parameter of the design is strict adherence to the central principle: Equal opportunity cannot be portioned out to some and not to others. If some lines of “section” are dissolved by this principle, on what basis can a line be drawn that maintains section elsewhere? The right to equality is only a birthright in the sense we are all children of Adam.  The principle is global by default, even when it is at work in small a space as a bus.

    The second key element driving the design is the deficiency of readily available structural options. King speaks of how the evils of Capitalism have not been answered by Communism and the evils of Communism are not simply overcome by the victory of Capital. A half century later, this observation by King does not sound like a quaint remembrance of the Cold War but something we have failed to get our heads around.

    The third element of the design concerns how time is not infinitely patient with those who would build. King baldly states that our survival as an American people depends upon the success of the enterprise.

    King the activist has passed away; he will never lead another group of courageous souls through rough and dangerous places. But through speeches like these, King is still the foreman telling his crew: Get back to work; we gave you a break when we hired you.

       Probably all the nation's wars since 1945 have been immoral, but Vietnam may be the one in which the American share of the guilt was the greatest.


    Another element of the speech is aimed directly at the history of American Exceptionalism, in all its forms, inside and out.

    On one hand, King rebukes the arrogance of a "West" that meddles in the affairs of other nations with the self certainty that assumes we know what is best for them.

    On the other hand, he calls for our nation to support and fight for people who are slaves in their states.

    It is easy to say these are irreconcilable objectives and leave it at that.

    But the "third way" King said we had to figure out combines the two.

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