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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Speech on the Vietnam War is a Dynamic One You Probably Never Heard

mlk1The way Congressman John Lewis sees it, you probably never heard what he considers one of Martin Luther King most dynamic and meaningful speeches, delivered 48 years ago in New York.

It was at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 where King, with Lewis in the audience, gave his speech against the Vietnam War at a time when America was losing and destroying lives in the bloody battle.

In the speech, King called for an end of the war, in no uncertain terms. He said: “Surely this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroy, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”

Lewis remembers it well.

“I was there. The religious leaders filed in: the priests, rabbis, nuns, ministers,” Lewis told Mic, recalling the speech at Riverside. “[King] preached that day out of the depth of his soul. That speech should get more attention.”

The speech may not have gotten the attention of the public, but it surely made the rounds in the political circles.

“It ends up being the most controversial speech,” said PBS host Tavis Smiley, on his documentary, “MLK: A Call to Conscience,” in 2010. “After he gives it, 168 major newspapers the next day denounce him. The New York Times calls it wasteful and self-defeating. The Washington Post says he has done a discredit to himself, to his people, to his country. He would no longer be respected. And that’s just the Times and the Post.”

The White House had major problems with it, too. It was, after all, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war. King had a working relationship with Johnson before that speech; they worked together on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But after that speech, Smiley points out, “LBJ disinvited him to the White House. It basically ruined their working relationship.”

What, exactly, did King say that was so offending to the political and social powers. Here are a few examples:

“(The people of Vietnam) watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.”

While King’s words were true, they rang too true for Johnson and others. King added:

“We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.

“Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified hamlets.” The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.”

Click here to read the entire speech.

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One thought on “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Speech on the Vietnam War is a Dynamic One You Probably Never Heard

  1. Kofi Opantiri says:

    I was stunned at what I was hearing on the radio one summer afternoon in 1981 or ’82 as I drove home with my family on a Los Angeles freeway. After briefly station-surfing on the car radio, I had come upon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving a speech I had never heard before. At one point, I commented that the things he was saying would usually come from Malcolm X or the Black Panthers.

    The speech I was hearing was titled, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” Sometime later, I acquired the entirety of the text of the speech in booklet form from the Los Angeles office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Eventually, I acquired an audio cassette-taped copy of Dr. King giving the speech.

    Promoting the speech through the years, I shared photocopies of the text and copies of the audio cassette-tape. I told people that this speech was far more important than the “Dream” speech because that speech told about reaching some destinations while the “Beyond” speech pointed to some of the roads we needed to travel to reach the destinations.

    It is, indeed, gratifying to see this speech getting increased attention of late. One can only imagine what this nation would be like today if it had heeded the guidance provided by Dr. King on April 4, 1967 when he gave that speech at Riverside Church in New York City. That our community is only beginning to be broadly aware of its existence is yet another example of the need for us to place a level of emphasis on knowing our history that is commensurate with that which Dr. Ivan Van Sertima calls for:

    “One has to make a Bible out of events of the past. One must not forget them. [They] must be blasted in your mind forever… Those things have to become part of your mind because those are the things that give you comfort, strength, pride and dignity in times of stress. Those are the things that you can go back to and plug into. Those are the things that give you the capacity to answer questions that keep constantly bringing doubt in one’s mind as to whether one has a history equal to that of other people.”.
    – – – DR. IVAN VAN SERTIMA. “THE AFRICAN PRESENCE IN EARLY EUROPE.” (RECORDED PRESENTATION). COMPTON COMMUNITY COLLEGE, COMPTON, CALIFORNIA. EARLY 1980’S?

    Had we been in the habit of placing that level of importance on knowing our history at the time Dr. King gave the speech, the broad masses of us would have become familiar with it decades ago. God only knows how far along the path to freedom we would be today if we knew about it back then.

    Go here to listen to a recording of Dr. King giving the speech and to read the text in its entirety:

    http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

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