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.


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”

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”

Story time

The history of grassroots activism abounds with classic stories of struggle against all odds, and tales worthy of telling around a campfire. History is the important element.

My own campfire tales were told around a flickering TV monitor last night. Owing to my impending retirement, I felt free to invite myself to be the guest on the monthly TV program that I produce and host.

Elliot Margolies’ interview was a marvel.

My goal for this blog is to tell more of these stories. Old and new.

My First Thoughtcrime

mccarthy office

The first time I was hauled into a police station for thoughtcrime was in 1968. I was 16 years old.

I volunteered for the Eugene McCarthy for President campaign that year. In an unlikely turn of events for the suburban New Jersey town where I lived, a McCarthy campaign office had opened in a former pet shop (“former” being just the week before). I happened across it on the way home from school and dropped in. Continue reading “My First Thoughtcrime”

Ballot Choice: Life or Death

9780399563140I’ve just finished reading “Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics” by Lawrence O’Donnell. Highly recommended if you lived through it or if you weren’t around. Maybe especially if you weren’t around. 1968 was one hell of a year in this country and we should know the history and try to learn from it.

Two assassinations (MLK and RFK), riots and rebellion in the streets of nearly every major US city, an utterly insane and ultimately corrupt presidential election campaign, with the relentless brutality of the American war on Vietnam providing the background cacophonous music to it all.

For those who didn’t experience 1968 firsthand, this book could prove to be an eyeopener. American society and politics were both unraveling in unforeseen ways, and they were doing so at breakneck speed. We had a president, Lyndon Johnson, who was driven mad by the determination not to be the first president to “lose” a war. So he kept bombing and bombing and bombing. We had a leading presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, who would stop at nothing to take power, including treason (a charge well documented by O’Donnell). And we had a large supporting cast of scheming, cynical politicians who darted in and out of the presidential campaign based on the day’s wind direction, looking for an opening to advance their own power. Issues? Policy? Issues are for amateurs.

And then we had an oddball poet-philosopher-Senator who decided to challenge an incumbent president of his own party solely on the basis of the war and the need to end it. Now. O’Donnell describes Gene McCarthy’s campaign platform as a simple matter of “life and death”. Indeed, he shows the entire year could be reduced to that simple formula: Choose … life or death,

But the real force that year turned out to be the still-growing peace movement. Not that it mattered, in the end, to the election results. But it mattered in the long run. It changed everything.

O’Donnell says, “The peace movement won. The peace movement drove U.S. forces out of Vietnam, not the North Vietnamese army. American politics responds slowly to protest, so it took several years for the peace movement to win. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger complained for the rest of their lives that they were not able to achieve peace with honor in Vietnam because congressional support for the war kept dropping. That is a complaint against democracy. … The millions of women and men who were active in the peace movement saved lives by forcing the war to end sooner than it would have if they hadn’t taken to the streets in protest …”

I was 16 years old in 1968 and deeply involved in both the Gene McCarthy presidential campaign and the peace movement. I’ve been a student of that era ever since. It is important — no, essential — history to grasp. Because we have the same simple yet stark choice before us right now: life or death.