When the dream gets a bit dreamy

On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech

by Ken Sehested

        Having been sheltered during adolescence from the Civil Rights Movement (and most everything else outside my small hamlet—except, of course, the far reaches of missionary testimonies), when my attention did turn, during seminary, I became a voracious reader of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others of the era.

        One of my purchases was an over-sized book of photos of Dr. King and other civil rights moments and luminaries. Flipping through, I came upon a photo of King and his wife Coretta sitting at a piano, their infant daughter Yolanda perched on Martin’s lap as he and Coretta sang from an open hymnal.

        The hymnal cover was clearly visible, and I audibly gasped at the recognition. It was the Broadman Hymnal. The hymnal I grew up with. Published by the Southern Baptist Convention, the same body whose Executive Committee voted down a resolution of sympathy to members of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, one day after the terrorist bombing in 1963 that killed four children.

        At one time I could quote from memory the page number of dozens of titles in that hymnal. As I came to discover, a good many churches that hosted Civil Rights Movement mass meetings—churches that were threatened by cross-burning Klan torches—did their singing from the Broadman.

        That moment—that photo—stands among my life’s greatest epiphanies. I came to realize that the language of faith can have many different, even competing meanings, just as any chemical compound, minus even one element, turns into something else altogether.

        With Dr. King’s birthday now a national holiday, and his iconic profile ever present around this time of year, it’s no longer possible to be sheltered from that history. The problem with icons, of course, is that they become fixed in stone and have little capacity to get under our skin. Some forms of remembering work like vaccination: we become immune to prophetic fever. Putting our saints on pedestals allows us to revere their memory while reneging on their mission.

        This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of King’s last major address, delivered from the dais of The Riverside Church in New York City. It was a speech that rocked not only the enforcers of Jim Crow but the Civil Rights Movement itself. In delivering “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” Dr. King enlarged his challenge far beyond segregated buses and integrated lunch counters. Instead, he explicitly linked domestic oppression with international aggression, naming what he called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

        We forget the scandal he provoked that day, 4 April 1967—precisely to the day one year before his assassination in Memphis.

        King was savaged in the media. Life magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”

        The Washington Post said “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

        Reader’s Digest warned it might provoke an “insurrection.”

        The New York Times ran an editorial, “Dr. King’s Error,” chiding him for linking foreign policy (the US war in Vietnam) with domestic policy.

        The Federal Bureau of Investigation privately called King the "most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country." They had already, for years, been illegally wire-tapping his phone.

        Apprehension in our nation’s capital was so intense that “the federal government furloughed its workers for the day. The Pentagon deployed 20,000 paratroopers. Hospitals stockpiled plasma. Washington banned sales of alcohol, and Major League Baseball canceled not just one but two days of [Washington’s baseball games], just to be sure.”*

        According to Roger Mudd, who covered the March on Washington for CBS News, the Kennedy Administration drew up in advance a statement declaring martial law, in case it became necessary.

        I encourage you in the coming days to set aside 54 minutes to listen to an unabridged recording of the speech. You can hear it, and read along with the text, at this site.

        “I Have a Dream” has become a bit dreamy, the sentiment injected with high fructose corn syrup, deep fried with a heavy batter, and rolled in sprinkles. Less than three weeks after the soaring prose at the Lincoln Memorial, King had to do the funerals of slaughtered Sunday school children in Birmingham. The Riverside oration puts the “dream” back into perspective in terms of the challenges still before us.

P.S. As it happens, this year the yohrzeit (death anniversary) of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel begins at sunset on 15 January, the birth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. (The Jewish calendar is lunar and not in sync with the Gregorian solar calendar; so this concurrence is uncommon.)

        Heschel, among the great spiritual leaders of the 20th century, was a close companion of King not only in the civil rights struggle but also in vigorous opposition to the War in Vietnam. Heschel was known for speaking about “praying with my legs” in reflecting on his marches alongside King and other civil rights leaders.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, seated at far left at the table, during King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech at Riverside Church.

        In addition to reading King's "Beyond Vietnam," also read Heschel's “The Meaning of War,” written in 1944. To grasp the continuing relevance of Heschel’s essay, where he wrote with the background of the struggle against Nazism, mentally substitute “terrorism.” The same insights apply now.

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©ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

*Taylor Branch, author of Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge, a three-volume history of the modern civil rights movement, in “Dr. King’s Newest Marcher,” New York Times, 5 September 2010.