Fifty years ago on April 4, 1967, our prophet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the historic speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at New York City’s Riverside Church. It was his first major public antiwar speech and a powerful warning that a rise in racial hatred, militarism and violence could destroy America.
In his essay “The Land Beyond,” originally published in Sojourners magazine in 1983, Dr. Vincent Harding, the brilliant historian and theologian and close King friend who helped draft the speech, wrote: “Even now it would be tempting to take this cry from the heart of a driven, searching, magnificent brother and file it away as a document for museums and other honorable places. But neither the fiery signals rising from some of our latest potential Vietnams in Central America, South Africa, or the Middle East, nor the mounting anguish of the betrayed and disinherited of our own land will allow us to escape the unresolved issues of the past or avoid the costly and accurate vision of our comrade in the faith. The speech not only requires us to struggle once more with the meaning of King, but it also presses us to wrestle as he did, with all of the tangled, bloody, and glorious meaning of our nation (and ourselves), its purposes (and our own), its direction (and our own), its hope (and our own).” Dr. Harding was writing on the speech’s fifteenth anniversary — yet his instructions for how we should reread the speech are even more searing today on its fiftieth.
Dr. King was speaking out against the Vietnam War specifically but also arguing that “the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” and that it was time for our nation to undergo “a radical revolution of values”: “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 nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” President Trump’s very first budget blueprint, which proposes an increase in defense spending for 2018 of $54 billion (a 10 percent increase) with $54 billion in cuts to programs serving the poor and vulnerable and addressing basic needs and other non-defense discretionary spending to pay for it, plainly shows Dr. King’s message is not being heard or heeded.
Just as starkly and presciently, Dr. King went on to say the revolution in our national values must reject nationalism and hate: “A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man . . . We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”
Headlines around the world show many nations are teetering on the precipice of this path right now — including our own. So how far down will we let our leaders go without speaking and standing up to intolerance? Dr. King reminded: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” “We must move past indecision to action . . . If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
Exactly one year after “Beyond Vietnam,” on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. In the decades since, our nation has continued to wrestle mightily with our purpose, direction, and sense of justice. In 2017 we are at a very dangerous crossroads. I hope a critical mass of us will, like Dr. King, stand up and act saying: We have come too far to continue being dragged down those dark and shameful corridors. We must turn around before it is too late. So let us make a mighty noise until our leaders with tin ears hear and reverse course.