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Just as MLK arrived in Memphis 43 years ago today to support his often overlooked work for social justice, he gave a landmark speech in his equally overlooked work for peace. At the Riverside Church in New York City, King spoke prophetically against the Vietnam war. He also demonstrated in this speech, better than in any other, how civil rights, economic justice, and peace are linked goals. Here are some excerpts, first on his reason for speaking out:

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,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened

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…

And, importantly, King shows how this issue is connected with the long term project for a stronger society:

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 — 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…

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…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.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. 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…

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…

As I was reflecting on some of these excerpts in church today (the speech was highlighted during the sermon, along with a blessing of the “Martin from Birmingham” mural), I was reminded of how activists and advocates tend to focus on very narrow fields in the broader fight. It makes sense- health care policy is very different from foreign policy, and an understanding of civil rights law is very different from an understanding of antitrust law. There is a need for specialization. I do worry, though, that we pour our energies into whatever our issue happens to be, and merely cheerlead and vote based on the others.

King was urging us to see the linkages among these issues, and I think that spirit needs to be realized again among those who work for justice of all kinds. I was struck once when a seasoned community organizer I met said that King’s effectiveness waned when he lost focus and started talking about Vietnam. I didn’t know to challenge him at the time, but I now realize that King was the prophetic voice we needed to cohere a common voice. Sadly, his life’s work ended with an untimely death. Who will be that prophetic voice as we face times of increased war and economic injustice?

 

 

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