Martin Luther King, Junior was assassinated almost 47 years ago to this day – on April 4, 1968. But exactly one year before his assassination he gave a very memorable speech – Beyond Vietnam. It was a fascinating speech that discussed America and the Vietnam War. Christopher Benedict explains…
Call to Conscience
Even to the secular citizen, New York’s Riverside Church is an architectural and historical wonder. Situated on Manhattan’s upper west side, this interdenominational place of worship, conceived and funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr., straddles the Hudson River and is mere blocks away from Columbia University. Grant’s Tomb, located at the northern-most tip of Riverside Park, can be found almost directly across Riverside Drive.
Its spiked, ornately carved gothic tower dominates the Morningside Heights skyline and makes it the tallest church in the United States, twenty-fourth in worldwide rankings. The cavernous nave and altar are quite a sight to behold owing to the dozens of vibrant stained-glass windows, low-hanging circular chandeliers, sculpted religious icons, and the massive arrangement of organ pipes. These encircle the pulpit from which Nelson Mandela spoke just four months after his 1990 release from prison on Robben Island, South Africa.
Fidel Castro, Cesar Chavez, Bishop Desmond Tutu, former president Bill Clinton, and Jesse Jackson (delivering the eulogy at Jackie Robinson’s funeral in 1972) likewise have uttered sage words (a patience and posterior-fatiguing four hours’ worth, in Castro’s case) which have resounded throughout Riverside Church’s hallowed halls.
On April 4, 1967, one year to the day until he would be murdered in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. would issue from this same stage what he already knew would be a controversial and divisive plea to a “society gone mad on war” for “radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam”.
Already derided as an antiquated ‘Uncle Tom’ first by Malcolm X and then by Stokely Carmichael, who was busy preparing the factions of his Black Power movement to congregate as “groups of urban guerillas for our defense in the cities”, King would come under attack not only by black radicals who mistook his non-violent teachings for a kind of manacled pacifism, but by his own constituencies within the Morehouse College alumni, NAACP, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Their main point of contention involved what they feared to be Martin’s gradual philosophical shift from civil rights to foreign policy, a concern shared by the country’s ‘moral majority’ who, as it was, had little to no tolerance for King’s dream of an integrated nation and even less, it seemed, for his unsolicited opposition to the administration’s ongoing and escalating military intervention in Southeast Asia.
And why, fretted many of his friends, advisors, and advocates, risk alienating or infuriating Lyndon Johnson, who had signed the Civil Rights Act and publicly called out the Ku Klux Klan, in the process?
Despite his rapidly declining popularity, which was responsible for a prolonged and deepening depression, Martin Luther King nonetheless clung to the unfaltering belief that “a time comes when silence is betrayal.”
Time to Break the Silence
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice,” Dr. King begins somberly.
The pews are filled to capacity, black audience members, in a stark reminder of how far society had yet to go despite the progress previously made, barred from the first several rows. Additional improvised seating proves inadequate, the overflow crowd choking the sidewalk of 120th Street.
“Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy,” he continues. “Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in their 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,” he insists, “we must move on.”
A preacher by vocation and by nature, King’s reputation and tradition was that of an extemporaneous speaker. This oration would prove to be the lone exception. Drafted, redrafted, and drafted time and again, the ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech would ultimately have as much preparation and surgically precise execution devoted to its construction as the very building in which it was recited.
Vincent Harding was its chief architect. It was a prominent role that would plague him with guilt and grief in equal measure one year later. Harding befriended King in 1958, during Martin’s convalescence back home in Atlanta. He had been stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a deranged woman named Izola Curry during a Harlem book signing for Stride Toward Freedom, leaving him, as he was fond of telling it, “just a sneeze away from death”.
“He and I understood each other, recognized that we were very close to each other on issues having to do with Vietnam, with war and peace, and with the dangers of America becoming an imperialist power in the world,” Harding told Democracy Now! hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez in 2008. “And so he asked me if I would do a draft of the speech, because he knew that I would not be putting words into his mouth. I would simply be speaking as my friend would want to speak, and that was the way that I went about the task that he asked me to do.”
Shouldering both the burden and the privilege to “speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls enemy”, Martin Luther King was tasked with representing the collective views of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.
“This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front,” King stated. “It is not addressed to Russia or to China.” Neither was it an attempt to paint them as “paragons of virtue” nor to delegitimize their suspicion of the United States’ sloppy attempts to color itself as such, virtuous intent betrayed by roughhouse tactics.
Invoking the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s motto “To save the soul of America”, Dr. King refused to withhold his denunciation of the nation’s arrogant preference for confrontation over contemplation, specifically to the detriment of the young, the poor, and the black, “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.”
Compassion, however, must also be extended toward and encompass “the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now.” Otherwise, observed King, “there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.”
Giving Voice to the Voiceless in Vietnam
“They must see America as strange liberators,” said King of the Vietnamese. “We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions, the family and the village. Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness.”
He dedicated the bulk of the speech’s middle portion to fleshing out most Americans’ skeletal knowledge of Indochina and clarifying, in the process, our country’s complicity in stitching together the flags of discontent that the Vietnamese had unfurled and which we then sought to shred and scatter in the mud.
Led by Ho Chi Minh, free from Chinese influence, and having “quoted from America’s Declaration of Independence in their own document for freedom”, the Vietnamese proclaimed their sovereignty from beneath the oppression of French and Japanese occupation in 1945. France was keen to recolonize Vietnam and sought to see it through with American-supplied financial aid with the addition of military advisors and weapons.
“It looked as if independence and land reform would come again from the Geneva Agreement,” explained King. “But, instead came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation.”
Soon enough, the U.S. was not content to simply drop propagandist leaflets on the peasants in support of their handpicked dictator Ngo Dinh Diem, and rained down bombs on their hamlets instead. The Vietnamese children were rendered homeless and hopeless, “running in packs on the streets like animals…degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food…selling their sisters to our soldiers…soliciting for their mothers.”
King hoped that the more sophisticated among our soldiers and citizens would recognize and atone for the fact that “we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Having already drawn upon a passage from Langston Hughes, King would also relate a message written by an unnamed Vietnamese spiritual leader, which bears repeating in full here.
“Each day the war goes on, the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. 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.”
Words that echo loudly today in the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Benghazi, and targeted drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Although their source was not disclosed during King’s speech, they in fact stemmed from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. A peace activist, scholar, and writer, he founded the Van Hanh Buddhist University of Saigon and the School of Youth and Social Service, as well as the La Boi publishing house. Thay (or ‘teacher’, as he is commonly known) also established the Engaged Buddhism movement, which aided Vietnamese victims of American carpet bombing and scorched earth policies, and later the Order of Interbeing, a group of laypeople devoted to taking and living according to the Bodhisattva vows, walking the path of the Buddha with mindfulness and compassion for all sentient beings.
Excommunicated by both North and South Vietnam during an extensive tour of the United States and Europe, in the course of which he tirelessly yet fruitlessly implored world leaders to end the war and fronted the Buddhist delegation at the Paris Peace Talks of 1969, Thay would ironically find a new home in France, of all places. There, he would build and lead Plum Village, which grew over time from a simple farmstead to the largest Buddhist monastery in the Western hemisphere, from where he continues to write and conduct retreats.
Thich Nhat Hanh would cross paths with Martin Luther King Jr. during his aforementioned global peace-seeking mission, the civil rights icon so enamored with the Vietnamese monk that he referred to him as “an apostle of peace and non-violence” and personally nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize, for which no one was awarded.
The Brotherhood of Man
King acknowledged his own 1964 Nobel Peace Prize as “a calling which takes me beyond national allegiances.”
“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,” he asserted. “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?” After all, King correctly diagnosed America’s “comfort, complacency, morbid fear of Communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice” as the chief culprits responsible for the festering sores now oozing amongst the “many who feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit.” It stands to reason then, he prognosticates that, “Communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated.”
King hits his full stride near the end of the speech employing his favored and very effective leitmotif of recurring refrains, this time structured around the thematic foundation of “a true revolution of values.” But not before first tearing down the decaying façade of the present ideological infrastructure built above a nation “approaching spiritual death” with the following words of warning, which may well be the most poignant ever spoken on the subject, by King or any other human being.
“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.”
Tomorrow Is Today
There is an urgency, not only to Vincent Harding’s written words, but also in Martin Luther King’s bombastic voice, when he conjures the imagery of “an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.” This speaks to the great question of how we wish to be remembered. What legacy we would like to leave behind individually, but even more importantly, as an interconnected society, in which we all have some say in the choice between “non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation.”
“If we make the right choice,” King finishes with a flourish, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood…when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Did you find this article fascinating? If so, tell the world. Tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below…
- The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson (Warner Books, 2001)
- Interview with Vincent Harding from Democracy Now! broadcast February 28, 2008
- Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-1966 by Thich Nhat Hanh (Riverhead Books 1999)
- A Call to Conscience documentary, produced by Tavis Smiley for PBS, March 2010