April 4 is the date Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 while he was in Memphis, Tennessee to support sanitation workers. Exactly one year before, on April 4, 1967, Dr. King gave one of his most consequential speeches titled, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”. This speech was the first time he publicly called for an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam and for unity and action to end the triple threats of militarism, racism, and extreme materialism.
By April 1967 over 1 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians and 16,000 U.S. military personnel had died in the Vietnam war. The countryside and cities in the south and the north had been devastated by combat, bombing, and use of toxic defoliants like Agent Orange. In the U.S. the anti-war movement had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in local and national demonstrations plus tens of thousands who had challenged the draft. As Dr. King explained, many of those drafted and dying were young, African American men while the demand for justice at home was accelerating, bringing new levels of repression. The connections between the wars abroad and the wars at home were becoming increasingly clear. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was one of the first organizations to denounce the war and emphasize the hypocrisy of the U.S. government claiming to defend democracy abroad while denying democracy at home. Rev. Dr. King’s address at Riverside Church built upon the work of activists and projected a powerful call to unite these struggles conceptually and strategically.
Many organizations have come together to promote national and local readings of Dr. King’s “Breaking Silence” speech in communities across the country to study the lessons of this speech and to convene local coalitions working for justice. The list includes: SNCC Legacy Project, National Council of Elders, Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee, The Highlander Research and Education Center, National Black Justice Coalition, Zinn Education Project, Voices of a People’s History, Fellowship of Reconciliation, National Civil Rights Museum, and Cleveland Peace Action.
Please plan to join us online to watch our national webinar where well-known advocates will be joined by grassroots organizers who will read the speech. It promises to be an inspiring program. A moderated panel discussion will follow the readings offering perspectives about the relevance of Dr. King’s speech to peace and justice work today.
The online live panelists and moderator following the reading are:
“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” was delivered to an overflow crowd at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 at the invitation of Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC). Dr. King’s challenge to engage in a radical revolution of values encountered ferocious opposition. Mainstream media castigated him for speaking out about foreign policy, consigning his expertise only to racial justice. Civil rights leaders criticized him for diluting the single focus on racism. Rev. Dr. King replied that he was continuing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) commitment to “save the soul of America,” by calling for an end to the devastation in Vietnam and the stagnation and decay of the war on poverty in the U.S. As a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize Award, he felt he had the responsibility to speak out for peace. For some, his “Breaking Silence” speech was the primary reason he was killed exactly one year later to the day. By confronting the deeply rooted racism, militarism, and materialism of the United States, Dr. King described the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
“I am convinced that if we are to get on 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. … We are confronted by the fierce urgency of Now.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Riverside Church
Everything you need to host a reading or conversation is readily available for download from this toolkit.