We should attend well to the sermons and speeches of one of our great anti-racist leaders, who was assassinated four decades ago this week. Indeed, just one year to the day before his assassination, on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” which established him as a leading advocate of ending the Vietnam war and the unnecessary bloodshed there. His strong critique of U.S. imperialism and governmental failure to improve the lives of people around the globe also made him the target of much criticism, hate, and threat, much like Dr. Jeremiah Wright and his strong condemnation of U.S. government failures more recently.
The speech was given to a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at the famous Riverside Church in New York City. Toward the end of the speech, King asserted that:
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. . . . Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”
He is still on target today. We need again, as a nation, to declare eternal hostility toward and take concerted action against poverty, racism, and militarism. Later Dr. King dramatically accents the importance of an activist brotherly love:
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. . . . We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. . . . We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world.
It is time for us to heed well such prophetic voices against racism and war, once again. Human beings have created the problems of racism and war, and we human beings can thus fix such problems if we commit ourselves to that.
Please add your own remembrances of and feelings about Dr. King and his speeches in the comments. He is much missed.