Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 20, 2020

"I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor."

It's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and given the recent and familiar saber-rattling we've been hearing, this time agitating for a war with Iran, it seems like a good time to visit King's speech, "Beyond Vietnam." He delivered it at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year before he was assassinated. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has the text and audio, and it's nice to listen to his sonorous cadences. King took a significant risk in pushing back against concerns about political caution and instead spoke his conscience. Some of the references are very much tied to the era, but others remain all too timely.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.

Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. 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.

For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!

Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
Digby has featured this speech before, emphasizing other good passages – it's full of them. And The New Yorker has a good piece from 2017 giving more background on crafting the speech and the political costs King knew it would incur. (It also covers John Lewis' memories of the speech.)

I appreciate that King linked war, and basically imperialism, to issues of class, race and lost opportunities in America. He received backlash for the speech, even though some passages of it are simpatico with that noted political radical, Dwight Eisenhower, who in 1953 asserted that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children." King emphasized race much more, of course, which surely made some of his white audience uncomfortable. And many of his points unfortunately remain all too pertinent.

In the questions for this election cycle's primary debates and in political chatter in general, we're essentially told that war, and all military spending, is free. According to conservatives, tax cuts and other giveaways to the rich and powerful are free as well or otherwise a national boon, and such largess will theoretically trickle down to we the peons. Apparently, it's only health care, and other domestic programs that could benefit the overwhelming majority of Americans, that cost money and need to be interrogated. Perhaps some wars are indeed necessary, yet the same people most likely to recklessly agitate for them typically argue against even the possibility of new or better social programs domestically. "I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor," said King. He wasn't fully appreciated in his lifetime, and his willingness to link the civil rights struggle to challenging other pervasive, oppressive notions is still not fully acknowledged now. As Cornel West put it, we should resist the "Santa Claus-ification" of King; it would be vanity to suppose we've already learned all he has to teach us.

1 comment:

Infidel753 said...

He was as eloquent as he was perceptive. This is what real leadership sounds like when it's not watered down with focus groups and pandering.