A few nights ago my partner and I attended the premiere playing of a newly discovered audio recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s controversial (as it turned out) “Beyond Vietnam” speech, given on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York. The recording was one of six long lost tapes recently discovered in the archives of WRVR, a public radio station that was owned and operated by the Riverside Church from 1961 to 1976.
The public premiere of this recording was sponsored by Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute and held at Stanford’s impressive Memorial Church, an attempt to recreate the environment in which the speech was originally delivered.
As the country officially “celebrates” King’s birthday on this Monday holiday — with mattress sales and an extra day off — I would encourage people to take the time to listen to this pristine recording of one of King’s most important, and reviled, speeches. You can find the recording here.
King’s eloquent speech was a scalding condemnation of the Vietnam War. More importantly, it was a condemnation of the power structures that made the war almost inevitable, “by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.”
King’s speech was widely criticized. The common theme of the complaints was that King was hurting his civil rights work by taking on an “unrelated” issue. In an editorial attacking the speech, The Washington Post claimed King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people”.
King had clearly anticipated this line of attack. In the speech, he explained the connections between the issues.
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. (Read the full transcript of the speech here)
I remember some of that reaction. In 1967 I was a 15-year-old who had been increasingly questioning the country’s war in Vietnam for some time. It just didn’t feel right to me, but I couldn’t quite define why I felt it was wrong. It certainly didn’t help that my entire family — from my parents and grandparents all the way through aunts and uncles and cousins — supported the war. In high school, the topic wasn’t even broached.
I recall asking my father once why we were in Vietnam. “Because they’re communists” was his entire rationale. That didn’t cut it for me, but, again, I couldn’t explain why it didn’t cut it. When the controversy over King’s Riverside Church speech hit the newspapers (which I read voraciously), I started getting the explanations I had been searching for.
None of the newspapers ran an entire transcript of the speech, of course. They opted instead to quote the most controversial sentences and then went on to condemn them.
The speech needs to be read in its entirety, because King made a carefully reasoned, piece-by-piece analysis of the war, its causes, and consequences. It wasn’t until nearly a year later, while I was volunteering for the McCarthy for President campaign, when I came across a transcript (at the McCarthy office, I believe). It was revelatory. Here, at last, was all the analysis I needed to oppose the war.
King’s reasoning about the motives that drove the US to the atrocity of Vietnam remain in full flower today. The “deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere” and the fact that “we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor”.
As happens every year, the various 2020 commemorations of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday will no doubt be accompanied by video clips from his watershed “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963. And that’s fine and as it should be. That speech was a soaring testimonial to determination, fairness and hope. And it was one of the finest speeches ever given on US soil.
It also serves today as a safe harbor. It was more aspirational than analytical. The 1963 speech looked ahead with hope. The 1967 Vietnam speech looked back at our involvement in Vietnam and did so with moral alarm.
“Beyond Vietnam” remains an essential analysis of why we need to continue to be determined. Just as racism — systemic racism — was not ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the powerful forces that drive much of US policy remain pretty much as they did fifty-three years ago …
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.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, take some time to listen to or read this essential King speech. We are still confronted by the moral choices which we faced in the 1960s. This time around, let’s make an informed decision.
If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.