1 Apr 2023 – April 4th is a day of remembrance – the day the USA lost a great prophet and truth teller, and a leader in the ways of nonviolence. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on that day in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an extraordinary and prophetic speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church in New York City.
Dr. King is known for many powerful speeches and sermons, and yet Beyond Vietnam was a watershed moment in which he articulated – with the help of Vincent Harding, who drafted the speech – a far-reaching and prophetic vision and warning to our nation, speaking to the deep-seated racism, greed, militarism and hubris that was driving – and continues to do so today – an out-of-control empire to inflict unspeakable violence both at home and around the world.
Beyond Vietnam speaks to us as clearly today as it did 56 years ago. One need only change the names of the wars – from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan – to bring it up to date. And therein lies the tragedy of our failing empire – we have not been able to shake the bonds of hatred, greed and xenophobia that make our nation what King called, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
When we hear about Dr. King – generally once a year around the time of his birthday, January 15th – the corporate news media has often referred to him as “the slain civil rights leader.” But Dr. King was so much more than that. The TV images the media convey are always the same ones – battling segregation in in 1963; reciting his dream of racial harmony in 1963; marching for voting rights in 1965; and lying dead on the motel balcony in 1968.
In the early 1960s when Dr. King was challenging rampant, legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media seemed to be his allies, showing graphic footage of police dogs, bullwhips and cattle prods used against southern African Americans who sought the right to vote or eat at a public lunch counter.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965 Dr. King began challenging our nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that the civil rights laws meant nothing without human rights, including economic rights. He spoke out against the huge gaps between rich and poor, and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power.
Dr. King did not suddenly become an opponent of war (and nuclear weapons) once the major civil rights struggle was over. As early as 1954 he said in one of his sermons that “the great danger facing us
today is not so much the atomic bomb that was created by physical science. Not so much the atomic bomb that you can put in an airplane and drop on the heads of hundreds and thousands of people – as dangerous as that is. But the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness – that’s the atomic bomb we’ve got to fear today.”
Dr. King understood that the overt manifestations of violence – war and nuclear weapons – were deadly symptoms of a much deeper malady of the human heart. He understood violence all too well, both through experiencing it firsthand and through a deep study of Christian and Gandhian nonviolence.
By 1967 Dr. King had become one of the country’s most prominent opponents of the Vietnam War as well as a staunch critic of overall foreign policy. He spoke of the difficulty of working for peace in an atmosphere of mass conformity. “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.”
He went on to say 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.” There is no other choice for us, because, “silence is betrayal.”
Dr. King saw the connection between war and the evisceration of social programs in this country. He “knew that we would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men [sic] 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.”
Dr. King spoke of “a far deeper malady within the North American spirit” that is greed. He said that it is our “refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments” that governs our foreign policy, and makes the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He called for a “radical revolution of values” wherein we “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He said that playing “the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside…will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
As a true modern-day prophet Dr. King was not afraid to warn people in the U.S. that, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He hammered away at the need for everyone to speak out and use the most creative methods of protest possible, not just against the war, but also for “significant and profound change in U.S. life and policy.” He believed that, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
I work with Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which has, for 46 years, worked to recapture that revolutionary spirit as we too seek “to keep the world from committing the suicide of nuclear war.” In a grand experiment in truth we “explore the meaning and practice of nonviolence from a perspective of deep spiritual reflection, providing a means for witnessing to and resisting all nuclear weapons” (from Ground Zero’s mission statement).
Michael Honey, a professor at University of Washington,who teaches African-American and labor history and Martin Luther King Studies, in his book “Going Down the Jericho Road,” spoke clearly to King’s commitment to nonviolent direct action in a passage about James Lawson, who worked closely with King. “Like King, he [Lawson] spoke of ‘soul force’ or satyagraha, as the crucial ingredient needed to keep the world from committing the suicide of nuclear war and to defeat racism. For him, pacifism meant: ‘We will make the choice according to the methods that we use, not according to the ends that we seek.’”
That quote goes to the heart of Ground Zero – although we seek an end to nuclear weapons, the ends do not justify just any means. We understand the dangers of compromising the spirit of nonviolence in order to hasten the process. We understand that we may not see the fruits of our labors in our lifetime(s), yet we continue speaking out and resisting nonviolently, unabated in the struggle, knowing that the alternative is unspeakable. There is no other choice for us because “silence is betrayal” (to future generations).
We live in an unparalleled time in human history – While we have developed and refined the very means of our own extinction, we have yet to learn the key lessons necessary for our survival. So it seems fitting to let Dr. King have the final word:
“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr., Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution
Click Here to read the entire text of Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech.
Author’s Note: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute is a valuable resource on Dr. King. Two books that I have found indispensable as references are A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Leonard Eiger is an activist and coordinates communications and outreach for Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action (gzcenter.org). Ground Zero offers the opportunity to explore the meaning and practice of nonviolence, while witnessing to and resisting all nuclear weapons. The US Navy’s Trident ballistic missile submarine base, adjacent to Ground Zero, represents the largest deployed concentration of nuclear weapons in the United States.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Apr 2023.