Follow-up on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

by Ken Sehested

¶ Connecting the dots—or, as we now say, intersectionality. “But when, exactly, did the post-civil rights era begin? Arguably it was fifty years ago today when in a speech [‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,’ aka ‘Declaration of Independence From the War in Vietnam’] at Harlem’s Riverside Church Martin Luther King Jr. definitively broke ranks with the liberals he once considered allies. . . .
         “The very liberals who supported and signed civil rights legislation while waging war in Vietnam would wind up in the years ahead being the chief promulgators of new laws that criminalized the daily lives of the urban poor and authorized the militarization of municipal police forces. The 1968 Safe Streets Act, signed by Johnson, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building up law enforcement and the criminal justice apparatus—astronomically more than was ever spent on the same president’s anti-poverty programs. This legislation would lead to a slew of other law-and-order policies that together helped lead us into the age of mass incarceration.” —Eric Tang, “‘A Society Gone Mad on War’: The Enduring Importance of Martin Luther King’s Riverside Speech,” The Nation

¶ Can’t turn back now. “At first blush it may seem counterintuitive to elevate [the ‘Beyond Vietnam’] speech above the watershed ‘I Have a Dream’ speech delivered four years earlier, or the "[I Have Been to the] Mountaintop’ speech he would give on the eve of his death. But if King's address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom made him into an American icon, his Riverside Church speech announced him as a genuine prophet for social justice, one who willingly sacrificed his hard-won status to defy an empire.” —Peniel Joseph, “This speech made Martin Luther King Jr. revolutionary,” CNN

¶ “‘The March on Washington was a powerful speech,’ [Congressman John] Lewis said to me recently, over the phone. Lewis was present for that one, too: he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial minutes before King did. ‘It was a speech for America, but the speech he delivered in New York, on April 4, 1967, was a speech for all humanity—for the world community. . . .’
        “‘The cross may mean the death of your popularity,’ [King] said at a conference the following month [after the “Beyond Vietnam” speech]. Even so, he added, ‘take up your cross and just bear it. And that’s the way I have decided to go. Come what may, it doesn’t matter now.’” —Benjamin Hedin, “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Searing Antiwar Speech, Fifty Years Later,” The New Yorker

¶ The “dream” is now a bit dreamy. “Dr. King’s Riverside Church address exemplified how, throughout his final 18 months of life, he repeatedly rejected the sunny optimism of his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and instead mourned how that dream had “turned into a nightmare.” But the speech also highlighted how for Dr. King, civil rights was never a discrete problem in American society, and that racism went hand in hand with the fellow evils of poverty and militarism that kept the country from living up to its ideals. Beyond signaling his growing radicalism, the Riverside speech reflected Dr. King’s increasing political courage—and shows why, half a century later, he remains a pivotal figure in American history.” —David J. Garrow, “When Martin Luther King Came Out Against the Vietnam,” New York Times

¶ Spied. Over the course of several years, Dr. King was subjected to intense surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, and the US Army Intelligence and Security Command. Most of it was illegal.

¶ Dr. William Barber’s sermon at Riverside. You can view online the 2 April 2017 worship service at The Riverside Church in New York City commemorating King’s speech in 1967. Guest preacher Dr. William Barber’s sermon, “When Silence Is Not An Option,” begins in the 48th minute.

¶ “Likely” a conspiracy. “The United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was established in 1976 to investigate the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . In its 1978 report, the Committee concluded in its report that while King was killed by one rifle shot from James Earl Ray, ‘there is a likelihood’ that it was the result of a conspiracy.” Wikipedia
        You can read some of the declassified documents from the FBI files at American Radio Works, “The FBI’s War on King.”

¶ Hard conclusion. “[The angry young men I’ve talked to] in the ghettos of the North . . . asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” —Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam”

¶ Preparation for Palm Sunday & Holy Week. “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” King speaking at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., 3 April 1968, the night before his assassination.

        •Complete speech (43:14 audio)

        • Excerpts (22:14) of the speech along with photos, video clips and commentary from some of his colleagues.

        •Brief excerpt of the speech’s key lines. (2:37 video)

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