Beyond the dream: MLK’s revolutionary analysis is still needed

A few nights ago my 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.

 

I’ve been saying “U.S. Out of Iraq” for nearly 30 years. Is it finally happening? Probably not. So let’s keep demanding it.

One of the many protest marches against the Iraq war that I organized over the years. That’s me on the right. Photo by PH Yang, used with permission.

I became the director of Peninsula Peace and Justice Center on August 1, 1990. The next day, Iraq invaded Kuwait. By the end of that first week, President George H. W. Bush had deployed 25,000 troops to Saudi Arabia and I had organized my first anti-war demonstration as director. 

Iraq and I go way back.

Continue reading “I’ve been saying “U.S. Out of Iraq” for nearly 30 years. Is it finally happening? Probably not. So let’s keep demanding it.”

Another significant 50th anniversary, but you’re not likely to see any TV specials about it

Screenshots from 8mm home movies of the historic anti-war march on Washington, November 15, 1969. Home movies can be seen at the bottom of this post. Original film courtesy of Bob De Lucia.

This past summer was defined by 50th anniversary commemorations. First out of the gate was the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, a historic event certainly worthy of review. And did it ever get reviewed — TV specials, newspaper inserts, even a commemorative coin issued by the U.S. mint.

Then came August and the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. The Woodstock celebrations were personal for me as someone who had actually gone to Woodstock. More commemorative events and publications. Even a stamp. But no coin as far as I know.

Coming up soon is another significant 50th anniversary event, another one with deep personal meaning for me — the anniversary of the massive Vietnam War Moratorium March on Washington, which took place on November 15, 1969, exactly three months after Woodstock. I was there, too.

Continue reading “Another significant 50th anniversary, but you’re not likely to see any TV specials about it”

The Time Richard Nixon and I Went to the World Series Together

When the World Series rolls around each year, I find myself reliving a very pleasant memory — the time I went to the World Series with Richard Nixon, at the time still serving as President of the United States.

I was a freshman at American University in Washington, DC at the time of the 1969 World Series, the year of the Miracle Mets. Saturday, October 11 was a warm fall day in DC. Game 1 was due to get underway in Baltimore in the afternoon. I was hanging out in my dorm room when one of the guys who lived across the hall knocked, came in, and waggled a handful of World Series tickets in the air. “I scored six tickets for today’s game. Wanna go?”

Continue reading “The Time Richard Nixon and I Went to the World Series Together”

Revisiting where my activism began, and finding a history lesson

Recently, during a brief visit to my hometown — Westmont, NJ — I checked out the site of the old local office of the McCarthy for President campaign. I volunteered for this campaign in 1968 at the age of 16. It was where I got started in activism.

Although the stop by the old campaign office was short, time enough only for a couple of photos, I’ve been thinking about the 1968 campaign itself. Not the small town New Jersey campaign, which was a great experience, but the bigger picture. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it may hold a lesson for us in this presidential campaign season.

Continue reading “Revisiting where my activism began, and finding a history lesson”

Happy anniversary, dear. Look, I got us handcuffs!

Tomorrow is Hiroshima Day, a time to remember the dreadful destructiveness of nuclear weapons. A time to remember that our country is the only country ever to have used these inhuman weapons — twice. And it is a time to rededicate ourselves to the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. There are today still nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads in the hands of nine countries. 

I’ll be hosting a special edition of Other Voices TV about the current state of nuclear weapons and the continuing abolition movement. I’m looking forward to my conversation with Jackie Cabasso, a nuclear abolition activist for over 30 years, and Jon Rainwater, Executive Director of Peace Action. Here are the details. I hope you’ll join me for this forum.

But for this post, I wanted to briefly relate the story of one particular anti-nuclear weapons protest that I participated in because it was particularly memorable.

Continue reading “Happy anniversary, dear. Look, I got us handcuffs!”

Endless summer memories

Florida c. 1966 – ’67 / Hawaii 2006

Nothing but memories here today. No politics. No analysis. No dissent. Just memories plain and simple. Very fond memories.

This has been a banner year to indulge our appetites for celebrating anniversaries, especially those weighty ones like 50th anniversaries. We got off to a good start with the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ last public concert, from the roof of Apple Studios. We have just finished (mostly) a celebration of the moon landing, and Woodstock’s 50th lies just ahead.

Continue reading “Endless summer memories”