Martin Luther King's Speech on Vietnam

— Malik Miah

ON JANUARY 20, President Bush made a photo-op visit to Atlanta, Georgia, to participate in the celebration of the life of the greatest civil rights figure in American history, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bush's decision came after a three-year presidency that has worsened the economic conditions for a growing numbers of African Americans. Unemployment is once again in double digits. Health care is declining. Segregation in education is on the rise. Expectations for a better life are at its lowest level in more than a decade.

Moreover, Blacks are disproportionately serving in the U.S. military and taking causalities in its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan under the banner of Bush's “war on terrorism.” Thus, it is appropriate to remind readers of what King had to say about the 1960s massive U.S. intervention abroad: Vietnam.

King's famous speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A time to break the silence,” deserves study by antiwar activists and others seeking a better understanding of the battle for economic justice, racial equality and freedom at home and abroad.

The excerpts center on King's explanation why he decided to take up the Vietnam issue at a time when rebellions were breaking out in many Black communities against racism. Many were asking: “Why should civil rights activists care?”

The speech was delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City. He was assassinated exactly one year later in Memphis, Tennessee. The excerpts follow.--Malik Miah.

The Importance of Vietnam

SINCE I AM a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset an obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America.

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 the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of 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.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, their brothers, and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.

We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit.

I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years--especially the last three summers.

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<197>my own government.

For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent . . .

Commission and Ministry

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission -- a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.”

This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.

Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men -- for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for Black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?

What then can I say to the “Vietcong” or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?. . . .

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else.

For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.

Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.

{The full text of this address appears at http://www.ssc.msu.edu/~sw/mlk/brkslnc.htm]

ATC 109, March-April 2004