By Tom Wagner
The following was a presentation given the 5th of March 2017 at the Harbor Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Muskegon, MI.
Inspiration often comes to us cloaked in mystery. Sometimes it comes to us as something that was always there; wisdom passed on from generation to generation or long standing personal commitments, but nearly imperceptible until a fresh breeze of new circumstance in our individual or collective life calls our attention to it.Other times it hits us like a thunder bolt, seemingly from nowhere, but with an irresistible energy that stops us in our tracks, turns us around and forcefully propels us into the future. Still other times we wrestle long and hard within ourselves or even with our closest allies. When resolution is reached, exhaustion may leave us not quite sure if we eventually discovered some deeply hidden strength to prevail, or if we finally surrendered to the will of some greater power.
All three of these perspectives guided the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church 50 years ago. It was likely the most controversial speech of his career, yet Congressman John Lewis has suggested that it was his most important, perhaps greater than the "I Have a Dream" speech. My plan is to discuss both the context and content of his speech. While the contextual material will focus primarily on the period from January to April 1967, it will include references to the longer history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. The text of King's address is rather long, so I will summarize much of it and quote important passages occasionally. Sources sometimes list the speech under the title, "A Time to Break the Silence". Others use "Beyond Vietnam". The first title comes from a text given to the press shortly before King delivered it. The second title is based on a transcription. King spoke at New York's Riverside Church April 4th, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis.
Oddly, by one account, the road to the speech began with a colleague washing a load of diapers in early January 1967. James Bevel had come to a moment of clarity during this mundane task. Though the idea didn't come completely unexpected, the ecstatic energy provided was lightning like. Bevel had to speak with Dr. King as soon as possible.
By 1967 James Bevel had a long history in the Civil Rights Movement. He, along with his first wife Diane Nash and others, was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. He was a veteran of lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and voter registration drives in the Deep South. After meeting with King in 1962 he was hired by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education. He played a central role during the spring 1963 Birmingham, Alabama Campaign by proposing and taking primary responsibility for training local youth for what became known as the "Children's Crusade". A combination of televised images of police dog and fire hose attacks, plus the threat of organizing an even larger youth march from Birmingham to Washington, D.C. convinced the Kennedy Administration to begin drafting civil rights legislation. As part of the Alabama Voting Rights project, Bevel proposed and organized the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery, which after the false starts on Bloody Sunday and Turn Around Tuesday, became one of the key motivations for passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Most recently in 1966 he had led SCLC's fair housing program in Chicago
In that same period American military involvement particularly in Vietnam, but also throughout South East Asia, was escalating on a massive scale. By December 31, 1966, 385,300 troops had been deployed to Vietnam. At the end of 1967 that number rose to 485,600. Since the mid-1950s, following a failed nine year French mission to re-colonize the region, the United States had sent a gradually increasing number of military advisors to support the South Vietnamese government against forces of the Communist North and domestic insurgents. Near the end of Eisenhower's Administration those advisors numbered about 900. The Kennedy Administration, stinging from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and construction of the Berlin Wall, began to focus attention on South East Asia after a negotiated settlement in Laos between the pro-western government and the Pathet Lao. At the time of JFK's assassination in November 1963 the administration had raised U.S. troop level in Vietnam to 16,000. Conditions changed drastically under Lyndon Johnson following two alleged attacks by North Vietnam on American spy ships on August 2 and 4, 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin (about a month after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act). Congress quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7th. Though it wasn't a formal declaration of war, LBJ treated it as permission to pursue a full military response. Troop levels were raised to 23,300 by the end of the year and reached 184,300 by the end of 1965.By the time our story was unfolding in January 1967; U.S. forces were in the midst of a three year bombing campaign called Rolling Thunder. Also ground troops were engaged in Operation Cedar Falls which destroyed four villages and flattened 40 square miles of countryside in order to force 10,000 residents into relocation camps. American casualties hit a record 1,194, which included a near record 240 deaths.
Prior to James Bevel's domestic chore revelation, A. J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) had asked him to lead a rally against the war planned for that spring. Up until that moment Bevel had begged off the invitation. However, at that moment he decided to accept Muste's request, but also decided to convince King to join the anti-war movement. Having found emergency child care for his two children (his wife was on a peace mission to North Vietnam with other peace activists), he told Muste's colleagues he would accept the mobilization leadership, found travel funds and headed for Atlanta to talk with King face to face.
However, Dr. King was not in Atlanta. He was under deadline to draft a book within two months. (It would be his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community.) So he had gone into seclusion in Jamaica to write. Bevel was able to talk Andrew Young into air fare and directions to King's retreat. Once there he recounted his washing machine epiphany and asked the civil rights leader: "Why are you teaching nonviolence to Negroes in Mississippi but not to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam?" King responded defensively that his mandate as leader of SCLC was to pursue civil rights issues, not foreign policy. Yet after he sent Bevel back to the States, the issue began to gnaw on him. As had happened often in his relationship with Bevel, at first King would resist his proposal, but eventually he would come around.
Actually King had publicly questioned the Vietnam War starting with a speech at Howard University on March 2nd, 1965, nearly two years earlier, but the media hadn't paid attention. He also joined a politically moderate group called Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam which organized seven months following the Howard speech. King left Jamaica for Miami in early February for the final stages of writing. His return also began nearly two months of wrestling within SCLC and among King's numerous friends and advisers over the question of whether he should participate in Bevel's anti-war mobilization, now scheduled for April 15th in New York City. Some worried that the broad coalition of organizations participating in the march, including some communist groups would damage SCLC's reputation and in turn create financial difficulty. Bayard Rustin who had played a key role in teaching Gandhian nonviolence to leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, thought participation would cut off future cooperation with the Johnson Administration. Curiously it was King who began distancing himself from LBJ. He had secured a March 13th meeting with the president, but canceled it.
When it became clear that Dr. King planned to speak, regardless of the results, Andrew Young arranged for him to speak at Union Theological Seminary prior to the mobilization to soften the response. In a third party hand off of the assignment Richard Fernandez, executive secretary of Clergy and Laymen Concerned, took charge. He proposed a three point plan to counteract negative effects from the April 15th event. One, the preview lecture would be moved to Riverside Church on April 4th. Two, a professional public relations person would be brought on board. And three, the Rev. Dr. would need to provide a text hopefully five days in advance for the press.
Fernandez submitted his list on March 21st. Starting March 24th, King had scheduled to be in Chicago, IL; and later Louisville, KY. As he left Atlanta, he gave a four point outline to Andrew Young. Young in turn assigned actual drafting of the speech to a number of volunteers. Much of the final text was drawn from material provided by Vincent Harding, a history professor at Spelman College. Harding was an African-American who had grown up in the Seventh Day Adventist tradition. After serving in the military, he attended graduate school in Chicago. There in the late 1950s he became active in Woodlawn Mennonite Church, a rare integrated congregation in the denomination. He and his wife Rosemarie later led Mennonite Central Committee work on civil rights in Atlanta from 1961-1965, living within a few blocks of Martin & Coretta King.
On the evening of April 4th, King faced a crowd of over 3,000 people at Riverside Church. He began by telling the crowd that conscience compelled him to speak, and quoted a recent statement from Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam; "A time comes when silence is betrayal." King admitted that telling the truth is difficult, especially if that truth sets one at odds with one's government. Yet he found encouragement in the significant number of religious leaders willing to, for perhaps the first time, choose conscience over conformity. Many people had questioned the wisdom of expressing dissent against the war. "'Why are you speaking about war Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?' 'Peace and civil rights don't mix,' they say. 'Aren't you hurting the cause of your people?' they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."
At this point he made clear that his message that evening was aimed at his fellow Americans, not the other actors in the war. King then listed several reasons why he must address the conflict in Vietnam. The most direct connection between civil rights and the war was that increasingly military spending was diverting talent and treasure from poverty programs at home. Furthermore it was men from poor homes who fight and die. There was an irony of black and white soldiers fighting and dying next to each other over seas, while they can't live in the same block in Chicago. Another reason addressed Bevel's initial question. It was a matter of consistency. How could he stay relatively silent about the Johnson Administration's use of lethal force abroad and continue preaching nonviolence at home. In the broader context human rights and nonviolence are connected. (How easily we roll that connection off the tongue 50 years later in the phrase "peace & justice".) King recalled a motto SCLC used ten years earlier: "To Save the Soul of America". Speaking out came from concern for the health and well being of the republic. Indeed, "If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read 'Vietnam'". As a Nobel laureate and a minister of the gospel, peace was his business.
"Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls 'enemy,' for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers."
Much of the text recounted the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, as he imagined a Vietnamese peasant might see it. We had supported French efforts to re-colonize South East Asia for the first nine years following World War II. We interfered with the 1954 Geneva Talks so as to prevent reunification. We backed repressive regimes in Saigon. Then we put boots on the ground and bombers in the air. We displaced people, killed their crops and poisoned their land and water. No wonder they might consider the Americans at best "strange liberators". King quoted an unnamed Buddhist leader, "It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism."
The civil rights leader moved on to propose five steps toward ending the war. Number one was to end the bombing of both North and South Vietnam. Second, declare a unilateral cease-fire to encourage negotiation. Three, prevent further spread of the conflict by ending the build-up in Thailand and interference in Laos. Fourth, accept that the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) has significant support in the South a must be included in future talks. And fifth, set a date for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. In the midst of applause King added granting asylum to Vietnamese who felt threatened by a new government, pay reparations and provide badly needed medical aid to the list. He encouraged faith communities to continue pressuring the administration to end its role in the hostilities through the creative use of protest. This included challenging young men to consider registering as conscientious objectors. (Note, this was not a suggestion to burn draft cards or resist the draft, but remained fully within the bounds of legal choices worked out with Selective Service prior to WW II.)
However, then the Rev. Dr. made what was likely the most important point: "The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit...". Too often then, and in the intervening years, there has been a pattern of using military aid or presence, particularly in Third World countries, to protect American economic interests.
"It is with such activity that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, 'Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, 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 to 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, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
"A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. 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.
"We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. 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."
"Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world."
Taylor Branch, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968 (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006)
David L. Lewis, King: A Biography, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978)
James Melvin Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986)
Tom Wagner is a former pastor in the Church of the Brethren. He studied at Manchester College and Bethany Theological Seminary. He has long served on the Muskegon County [Michigan] Cooperating Churches Board of Directors, a local ecumenical agency, and writes a regular column for their bi-monthly newsletter.