Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence
April 4, 1967 Speech delivered at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church, NYC
by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. [excerpts]
I come to this house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many have questioned the wisdom of my path. Why are you speaking about 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?
Since I am a preacher, it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. I knew 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 destructive suction tube. So I was compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor.
[The war] was sending their sons, brothers and husbands to fight and die in high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were sending black young men 8000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. We watch [young white and black men] in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a village, but realize they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
My third reason grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North — 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 that social change comes through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? I knew 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.
[Some] ask, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and mean to exclude me from the movement for peace. When we formed SCLC, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but affirmed that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. No one who has any concern for integrity can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.
Another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would have to live with my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. My ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them.
Finally, as I delineate the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I [say] I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond race or nation or creed is this brotherhood, and I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering, helpless and outcast children. This I believe to be the privilege and burden of all who deem ourselves bound by loyalties broader and deeper than nationalism. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.
I am as deeply concerned about our troops there. We are submitting them to not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long the more sophisticated realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and secure while we create hell for the poor.
Somehow this madness must cease. If we continue, there will be no doubt that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. The world now demands that we admit we have been wrong from the beginning in Vietnam. We must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
We must match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible. The war is a symptom of a far deeper malady, and if we ignore this 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 and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in US life and policy.
During the past 10 years we have seen a pattern of suppression which now has justified U.S. military “advisors” in Venezuela. This need to maintain stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of US forces in Guatemala. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. He said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, 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 investment.
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 shift from a “thing-oriented” to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on [the] military than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. The richest and most powerful nation in the world can 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.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs 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. It is a sad fact that the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a
sometimes hostile world declaring [our] hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”
A genuine revolution of values means that our loyalties must become ecumenical. Every nation must
develop loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This is a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all. This concept–dismissed as a weak and cowardly force–has now become an absolute necessity for survival. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the dark and shameful corridors reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. Shall we say the odds are too great? Or will there be another message, 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.