We are reposting this in in concert with the readings of the speech this April 4th (event information), part of a project initiated by the National Council of Elders on April 4, 2017: Time to Break Silence. Groups around the country will stage public readings of Martin Luther King’s Beyond Vietnam speech on its 50th anniversary.
On its 50th Anniversary
A Critical Appreciation of (the end) of Martin Luther King’s Beyond Vietnam speech, April 4 1967
Martin Luther King is now a revered figure for most Americans. That was not always the case, even before his speech to Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City denouncing the Vietnam War in April of 1967. As the civil rights movement secured landmark victories like the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King remained a highly polarizing figure, with 45 percent rating him favorably and 46 percent negatively in Gallup polls. This marked the peak of his popularity in the 1960s; King’s popularity plummeted again in 1966. By August of that year, the man who had won a Nobel Peace Prize only two years earlier had a 63 percent negative poll rating, with a mere 12 percent of all Americans expressing a “highly favorable opinion” of him. Later that year, the Harris Survey asked whether Martin Luther King was “helping or hurting the Negro cause of civil rights.” Half of White respondents believed he was hurting the cause. Only 36 percent said he was “helping.”
King’s speech on the war did little to improve his reputation. As Taylor Branch recounts in At Canaan’s Edge, even some of King’s advisors believed that the speech was impolitic – “too advanced,” “not so balanced” as it should have been. Lyndon Johnson’s political counselor, John P. Roche, wrote a confidential memorandum stating that King had “thrown in his lot with the commies.” The New York Times in an editorial entitled “Dr. King’s Error” called King’s protest against the war “wasteful and self-defeating” and likely to be “disastrous for both [civil rights and peace] causes.” The Washington Post was even harsher. It predicted that many who had once listened to King with respect “would never again accord him the same confidence”; and concluded “he has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.” The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper, said King was “tragically misleading” Black Americans.
A 2013 PBS documentary about Whitney Young Jr. describes how the head of the Urban League fell out with King because of his opposition to the war. The NAACP under the leadership of Roy Wilkins said it was improper for him to link the civil rights to opposition to the war. Bayard Rustin argued that involvement of civil rights groups in anti-war activities would be distinctly unprofitable and perhaps even suicidal and even long-time activist A. Philip Randolph argued to keep civil rights separate from antiwar efforts.
King is renowned as a great orator, which hasn’t always meant that people pay his substance the respect it deserves. As an icon, his words have been repeatedly quoted, but often take out of context. The depth of his critique has been ignored, downplayed, and erased from the historical record. What follows is my attempt to respond 50 years later in another disquieting moment to one of his most forthright and courageous speeches. I urge others to do the same. I will mostly engage the end of his talk where he goes beyond the particulars of the war in Vietnam to focus on its deeper and more long-term implications. I will take one paragraph or so at a time and respond with his words indented:
Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
At this point, King begins a move from an anti-war position to an anti-imperialist one. It is not just one unjust war that disturbs him, but the US role around the world: in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. This is, as Cornell West would have it, a prophetic move, not calculated to increase his popularity.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.
King implicitly channels the American Revolution and begins to make the case that the US is now playing a counter-revolutionary role around the world. This statement places him beyond the pale of establishment discourse, even amongst those opposed to the war. He cites not only military intervention in Venezuela, Cambodia, and Peru and the use of the inflammatory weapon napalm outside Vietnam, but the military’s role in protecting US investments.
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; 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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Imperial America is not inevitable. “By choice, or by accident;” if it is by accident perhaps US leaders will mind King’s plea. Even the martyred John Kennedy perceived dangers in the direction of American policy. King chooses not to explore Kennedy’s role in escalating the war in Vietnam–still a matter of controversy. In a quasi-Leninist analysis linking American wealth to a global system of exploitation, he cites the privileges and pleasures for Americans deriving from immense overseas profits. Whether by choice or accident, changing the US role in the world will not come easily; it will require a radical revolution away from what can only be described as capitalist values to more humane ones. King defines himself here as a radical revolutionary, at least in terms of values.
Racism is not an isolated problem, divorced from other US values or from US actions throughout the world. King has come to see these issues as inextricably linked; so he calls for a more profound change than simple reform. The implications of targeting these giant triplets for our current work will be further explored later. Here he parts ways with many of his pragmatic confederates who did not want to alienate allies, including President Johnson, or break with other elements of the American consensus and thereby marginalize the Movement. Earlier in the talk he had already confessed:
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the 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?”
Besides a call to vigorously oppose the war, King’s words constitute both a self-criticism and a defiant response to these critics. To move forward: the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism must be overcome.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that 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 than an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring.
King appropriates the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke to define the difference between reform and revolution. Helping someone who has been attacked has virtue, but such generosity does not remove the dangers of the Jericho Road, which must be transformed so that the attacks will cease and it can be traversed safely without victims who require good Samaritans.
His cry for a revolution in values, which he expands upon in subsequent paragraphs, signals his recognition that legal change, while important, will not suffice to bring about the depth of change that the world or the US requires. Finally his call for restructuring implies a socialist perspective rather than a reformist capitalist outlook.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
King resumes his critique of US-based global capitalism—which has qualitatively expanded its scope in the last 50 years—and of the greed of what we now call the 1%. He adds a critique of Western arrogance and Euro-centrism.
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.
He vividly describes the realities of war, the damage it causes US soldiers, and also evokes its suicidal consequences for our nation. Still today there never seems to be any problem in finding resources for carrying out war, as our rulers turn away from social welfare as economically inefficient and destructive of individual self-reliance. The Golden Rule has been replaced by lust for gold and power. Those in need have been transformed from valued members of our community to enemies who must be kept from voting or even from entering our country. The logic of war continues to trump notions of common humanity and our leaders seem blissfully unaware of the poisonous consequences for our spirit. To drive home the danger of our present course, King reworks the invocation from Proverbs that “Pride goeth before destruction” (or the fall).
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.
Because America is so powerful, King suggests, it can lead the way in the revolution of values. This seems in contradiction to his previous excoriation of western arrogance. No matter what, America can still be the best. Perhaps this notion is part of our problem—we have led in the wrong direction, now perhaps we should, as King suggests in later paragraphs, follow in the footsteps of the oppressed. This passage reads more like a wish and a prayer compounded by pleading than sober analysis. Of course there is more holding America back from transformation than a tragic death wish—though our suicidal tendencies have only become more evident since 1967. He is trying to be encouraging but this part, for me, falls flat. I wonder what will drive a revolution in values beyond calling for one and appealing to moral sensibilities. How can we overcome the powerful materialist drives he has described so eloquently?
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days, which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy [applause], realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develop
King, if an incipient socialist, was certainly not a Marxist or a Leninist, but as we see here, he was opposed to what he termed “paranoid anti-Communism.” In the late 1940s he had studied the Marxist canon and concluded that Marxism was the expression of a “cold atheism wrapped in the garments of materialism . . . egregiously wrong in denying man’s spiritual necessities.” Lenin dangerously promoted “ethical relativism” on the question of revolutionary tactics, and Communism resulted in one being reduced to a “depersonalized cog in the ever-turning wheel of the state.”
Along with many others in the New Left, I was attracted to the egalitarianism of Marxism and Communism, and I understood anti-Communism to be our ideological enemy, a way to discredit not just the antiwar movement, but almost every progressive movement including King’s. King was well aware of the establishment’s use of anti-Communism. Kennedy, for instance, pressured King in almost every meeting to purge the movement of leftists.
As a secular Jew I was not attracted to King as a religious figure. The Holocaust has led Jews into either becoming more religious, on the one hand, or indifferent to a God who had seemed indifferent to Jews, on the other. I am firmly in the second category. I still think King missed the spiritual elements that grow from Marxism—especially its respect for the dignity of labor and laborers. Yet his critique of Marxism and its offshoots has force. The suppression of religion in Communist states denies its mass appeal, and its power in promoting morale amongst the oppressed (see for instance the role of the Black Church not just in the Civil Rights movement, but historically in the seemingly hopeless abolition movement). The Church, of course, has also often sided with the powers of reaction, or remained removed from progressive struggles; but spiritual life in Communist countries has certainly not flourished and often produced a dispiriting cynicism. It also can’t be denied that Leninism has promoted an ethical relativism as well as disdain for what it terms bourgeois forms of democracy. This has led to the suppression of important basic human rights such as free speech and a free press as well as freedom of religion. And Communist countries have, at best, been disappointing in bringing in a new order of freedom and prosperity and, at worst, committed serious crimes against their own populations. In the 1960s, I would have strongly disputed King’s anti-Communism, but today I must concede many of his points.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.
King evocatively affirms that he stands with the world revolution—with the shirtless and barefoot–and will not let his critique of Communism blind him to the justice of their cause; they and he have seen a great light. It is crucial to stand in solidarity in these revolutionary times. An intervening 50 years allows us to perceive both how revolutionary those days were and how limited the achievements; and why we need to revisit King’s words. King’s lifetime did mark the end of old-style colonialism and initiated a new consciousness of global inclusion and agency.
We have also witnessed the expansion of a cold global capitalism with little relief for the barefoot and shirtless. War has been further technologized and there are too many wars to count; American fighting in Afghanistan has lasted longer than in Vietnam. Millions are displaced from their homelands by the impact of global capital and war, while American jobs are exported to take advantage of low wages abroad. So the question for us, again, is how do we effectively stand in solidarity with the rest of the world as we confront more avowedly reactionary rulers who brazenly advocate America First? Are we witnessing the last stand for the American empire and its resentful proponents who wish to wipe out many of King’s greatest accomplishments? Is America headed for a nasty decline? How does one authentically respond to the suffering in a declining empire without regressing into a 1950s fantasy of a great America?
It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. 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. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”
King calls for the revival of the moribund western revolutionary spirit. He is blunt in naming the arch anti-revolutionaries as he laments Communist branding of the revolutionary spirit along with the failure of the West to make democracy real. The fall of the Soviet Union and the adoption of one-party state capitalism by the Chinese leadership have altered the terrain. Communist states today hardly represent a revolutionary spirit as much of the rest of the world turns to authoritarian leadership. I remain moved by the injunction for the west to regain a true revolutionary spirit, but unsure of its likelihood. King, here, as in other places, reinforces a less than convincing argument by resorting to Biblical exhortation. I think he is right that in this cynical society moral appeals still have resonance, but I am not sure they can bear the weight he places on them.
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
In further delineating what he means by a revolution in values, King calls for a global ecumenism and tries to inoculate his notion of love from accusations of softness, weakness, cowardice, and sentiment. He emphasizes the commonality of all religious traditions in affirming the centrality of love. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong carries on this tradition today as she travels around the globe insisting on the import of the Golden Rule to all spiritual traditions. Again, in the 1960s I would have dismissed the power of love as non-materialist and oblivious to the power structures that define the modern world. Today I understand love and relationships that cross boundaries as a key resource for our movements. The question is how to harness love in order to build both trust and power so that we can be organized, endure, and make a real impact.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
How to communicate the self-destructiveness of hate in this hateful period? There is opportunity, but we need more models. Abstract appeals to history and morals are useful; but hate currently seems to have a lot of energy, if not vitality. The 2016 election demonstrated that open expressions of hate pass for honest talk. There is potential if we can communicate clearly how the wars in the Middle East have only made matters worse, how a repressive criminal justice system yields more crime, and how hatred begets more hatred.
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”
In one of the most widely quoted passages of this speech, King emphasizes the fierce urgency of now. In retrospect, we can only bemoan that we did not take sufficient advantage of that moment of opportunity. The 1960s did represent a period of hope when much seemed possible. Now we confront a period in which many of the accomplishments of that period are being undermined and overturned. Women and people of color are being disparaged, voting rights are being dismantled, and wars continue apace. While the atrocities of the war in Vietnam came as a shock to a naïve generation, ongoing ‘forever war’ (in the words of writer Nguyen Thanh Viet) have been normalized for a cynical, fearful, and distracted public. Still more people currently feel the fierce urgency of now than they have in many years. How can we convert that sense of urgency into a powerful and effective movement?
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.
It’s difficult to believe that the Vietnamese could have resisted the French and the Americans nonviolently—and King notably does not chastise them for their choice of struggle. I am in no position to deny people’s right to resist in whatever form they deem necessary or practical. But it is also clear that violence has great cost to even victorious struggles. The cycle of violence is self-perpetuating. In this hyper technological age, the forces of reaction are better armed, not to mention more comfortable with the culture of violence, than the resistance. Our strength is moral, organizational and, hopefully numerical. King is surely right that the ultimate choice is between violent co-annihilation and nonviolent coexistence. We cannot win a military confrontation; we must build the power to win by isolating those who resort to violent repression.
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? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
With the exception of modifying the injunction to extend beyond sons, brothers and men to women and transgender people, there is little to add.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
Once to every man and nation comes a moment do decide,
In the strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong
Though her portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
Clearly, once more, that moment is upon us.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Let’s hope so!
King’s move outside the mainstream was historic. Having worked his way into a position of influence, if not direct power, in the establishment, he was willing to cede that status to reckon honestly and openly with the problems he and the American people were facing. This marks a stunning reversal of the standard American political narrative when the young radical with ‘maturity’ relinquishes ideals to work with city hall and rise to political power.
In identifying the triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism King articulates a form of what is now called ‘intersectionality’. “Intersectionality is not just about identities but about the institutions that use identity to exclude and privilege.”
It is noteworthy that King extreme materialism and not materialism entirely. Implicitly, he acknowledges people’s basic material needs without which it is difficult to live morally. Extreme materialism is manifested currently in the ideology of neoliberalism, which commodifies human relations, dismissing communal and moral concerns as externalities. For extreme materialists, economic success for individuals trumps the need for equality and social welfare is framed as stealing from Whites to subsidize People of Color, rather than as an essential form of communal caring. Promoting a revolution in values is thereby connected to the struggle for economic security.
Neoliberalism leads to fantasies of domination (remaking the world in the American image) and when the world does not bend, an infatuation with military solutions. The moral compass is lost in the name of realpolitik and American exceptionalism. Militarism devours the national treasury, demonizes the ‘other’—as gooks, terrorists, and un-American—and robs the government of its social welfare function. If extreme materialism is the central motivation, militarization is inevitable to preserve economic dominance. Both internal and external enemies are crucial to fueling the military spirit.
King does not mention GI resistance, a movement just coming to public attention as he spoke, as an ally in the struggle against militarism. In December 1966 US Army Captain Howard Levy was charged with promoting “disloyalty and disaffection” among soldiers at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina for refusing to teach dermatology to Special Forces airmen headed to Vietnam. In June of 1967, a general court martial found him guilty of disobedience, seeking to promote disloyalty, and culpable negligence. A few days earlier, in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Pvt. Andy Stapp was found guilty of refusing to obey an order to open his footlocker and surrender anti-war literature. Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) was established at the same time. Started by veterans who marched in the April 15 New York antiwar demonstration, at which King spoke, VVAW grew to 20-30,000 members and became a significant opponent of the war. GI and veteran resistance has largely been erased from the history of the war. The voices of veterans of current wars in organizations like VVAW, Veterans For Peace, and Iraq Veterans Against the War remain crucial to the fight against militarism.
Since the triplets function in tandem, any strategy forward must deal with all of them. Opposing war without understanding its economic and racial motivation will prove limiting. Opposing racism in isolation from antiwar politics risks unintended collusion with the warmakers. Extreme materialism allowed, even compelled, Americans to discount the egalitarian language of the Declaration of Independence to endorse slavery and Jim Crow. Separating economic exploitation from racial repression misses how American rulers are able to maintain power. If work status is linked to racial status, laborers will confront and resent those with less power and spare big capital their wrath. White resentment will dash hopes for class unity.
King came through a struggle against racial oppression to an understanding that the values of extreme materialism and militarism frustrated his efforts. Earlier in his speech, he listed his reasons for opposition to the war. These included:
There is at the outset a very 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 this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on 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 a 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 and 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 hardly live on the same block in Chicago. 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 ghettos 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: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
His reasons for opposition to war build on each other and are linked to the struggle against racism. War absorbs resources that could be used for social welfare at home. Whites and Blacks could only come together “in brutal solidarity” to destroy Vietnamese lives. It is difficult to promote nonviolence convincingly in an atmosphere in which the US has become the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
Persuading Americans to foreswear war means, first of all, recognizing those abroad not as competitors, saboteurs, or demons, but as full members of the human community. If low wages abroad undermine wages at home, the solution lies in solidarity to promote livable wages across the globe. If being American means being superior to the rest of the world, racism will gain new footholds and be further entrenched.
King formulates his concept of racism from a Black/White binary perspective—with Black having functioned historically as a negative counterpoint to White–which has been fundamental to American culture. But race has also been implicated in the violent expropriation of Native land and marginalization of Native people. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to immigrants who were free White persons of good character. It thereby excluded American Indians, free Blacks, and later Asians, among others. King was certainly aware of this history. His final effort at organizing a Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) attempted to go beyond Black and White and connect poor people of different races and ethnicities. An organizing brochure claimed: “We will be young and old, jobless fathers, welfare mothers, farmers and laborers. We are Negroes, American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, poor White people.” The PPC organized 9 caravans and brought a rainbow collection of people from all over the country to demonstrate in Washington, DC soon after King’s assassination.
More recent changes in American demographics have further altered the racial landscape of America. Partially in response to the Civil Rights movement, Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (which went into effect in 1968). The Act phased out the national origins quota system instituted in 1921 (although it did cap immigration from the western hemisphere), supposedly putting people of all nations on an equal footing for immigration. The result has been a new era of mass immigration (including unauthorized or undocumented migrants) particularly from Asia and Latin America, which has only stabilized since 2008. Estimates are that Latinos already constitute the largest ‘minority’ group and there are predictions that non-Hispanic Whites will be a minority by mid-century. This prediction is contested and involves problematic assumptions about race and ethnicity, but there is no doubt that the complexion of American society has changed. Fear of outsiders, while always endemic in American culture, has reached heightened levels through explicit public attacks on Mexicans and Muslims accompanied by increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant policies. The White nationalist/supremacist movement has also been unleashed—and mainstreamed—for a multi-pronged attack on the Movement’s accomplishments. The Supreme Court has already gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Are we now about to repeat the 19th century retreat from Reconstruction to Jim Crow, regressing from Civil Rights to America First?
Many questions remain.
In the patriarchal tradition, King’s speech lacks an analysis of gender, including its connection to militarism. The term ‘intersectionality’ initially aimed to delineate the intersection between racism and sexism. Even as King spoke, there was a burgeoning women’s movement, which has continued to sink deep roots in the past 50 years. The great proliferation of Women’s Marches around the world in response to Trump’s inauguration demonstrate its continuing power. In fact, the women’s and LGBTQ movements have become one of the main targets of the purveyors of reaction. So sexism needs to be added to and analytically integrated with the triplets. Sexism, male supremacy, and heterosexism need to be dealt with in the anti-racist movement, just as racism and White supremacy must be addressed in the women’s and LGBTQ movement. Both racism and sexism must be seriously contested in the economic justice and antiwar movements.
King’s speech was not intended to define a comprehensive strategy or an organizational direction. To confront reaction effectively, we need to develop new organizational forms. In the present moment, how can we develop a powerful popular front? How will it confront not just extreme reaction, but the deeper structures of oppression? Reaction can be set back temporarily, as we have seen, without sufficiently uprooting its foundational elements of racism, extreme materialism, militarism, and sexism. Intersectionality has become something of a buzzword, sometimes used superficially or for political one-upsmanship, but King meant something profound: that understanding the deep inter-relationship between modes of oppression is essential for the freedom movement to make any enduring progress.
Jim Crow was legally defeated, but White supremacy has shown its resilience with the new Jim Crow followed by explicit attacks on ‘intruders’ in the White male fantasy of America. King’s articulation of the importance of intersectionality in a movement of love and justice must still form the core of our movements 50 years on from his inspiring, thoughtful, and forward-looking speech. Let us honor his eloquence by turning the essence of his words into creative and dynamic action to save the soul of our nation.