On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most important speeches in American history at Riverside Church in New York City. In it he decisively and prophetically extended his public ministry beyond narrowly defined civil rights by calling for an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam. "'A time comes when silence is betrayal,'" preached King. "That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam."
The Riverside speech (variously called "Beyond Vietnam" or "Breaking the Silence") named the sickness eating the American soul as "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism." It was a watershed moment.
King's address was drafted for him by his friend, historian Vincent G. Harding. King made minor changes, but essentially delivered Harding's original text. "It's important to know that for about as long as the war was going on, Martin was raising questions about it," Harding, a retired professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, said in a recent interview. Harding and his wife, Rosemarie, often attended Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta when King was preaching. "It was clear that Martin was opposing the war," Harding explained, "and that he was opposing it from a deeply Christian perspective."
In smaller venues King had linked the issues of civil rights, economic justice, and peace, but he had never united the three in such a powerful and public way. He had never dissected the history of U.S. military imperialism with such thoroughness. But most strikingly, King launched his deepest, sharpest theological critique of America. No longer was he only holding America accountable to the ideals of her founding documents. Now King was addressing the mechanisms of empire—not just its bitter fruits—and holding America accountable to God.
BECAUSE OF the Riverside Church speech, King was attacked by friends and detractors alike. Even as he spoke before the 3,000 members of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, protesters were outside. These were not segregationists. They were black nationalists who believed that King's focus on the war would undercut hard-won advances in civil rights.
"After the speech," recalled Harding, "all the keepers of the conventional wisdom, especially in The New York Times and The Washington Post, simply vilified Martin and condemned him. They spoke about the fact that he had done ill service, not only to his country, but to 'his people.' That was very hard for him because on a certain level, the approval of the white, liberal media had been a kind of protective covering for the movement and for him for a number of years, especially since the March on Washington [in 1963]."
The New York Times editorial, titled "Dr. King's Error," said, "to divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating. … Linking these hard, complex problems will lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion." Republican presidential contender Barry Goldwater stated publicly that King had done "irreparable harm" to the civil rights movement and that King's speech "could border a bit on treason." The directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called King's speech a "serious tactical error."
WHY DID KING decide to take on the war? Why did it provoke such a vicious backlash? What can the speech teach us about American empire today and our multi-front war on terror? What hope does it give us for saving "the soul of America"?
Harding put the Riverside speech in its historical context. In 1965, Harding finished his doctorate in history at the University of Chicago and returned to Atlanta to chair the history and sociology department at Spelman College. Harding had worked in Atlanta with the Southern freedom movement for four years in the early 1960s.
"That summer [of 1965], I really immersed myself in studying what Vietnam was all about," recalled Harding, "especially the historical background. I decided to write something to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC] gathering.
"I wrote essentially an open letter to Martin and the delegates. I said that all through our movement we had highly valued the response we got from people involved in anti-colonial struggles all over the world. Their words, their letters, their telegrams, their communications of various kinds indicating solidarity and support were very important for us. I raised the question as to whether or not we could, in conscience, keep still about what was going on in Vietnam in light of the kind of response we had gotten—and that we often sought—from those involved in anti-colonial struggles. Martin expressed appreciation for the letter, and it was clear that he and I were basically on the same page as far as the war was concerned."
While the matter of Vietnam was becoming quite clear to King, it was far from clear to his allies. "Martin had to fight his way through to stand in that position," said Harding, "because [President Lyndon] Johnson was the most powerful ally to the black freedom struggle that we had known for a long, long time; some people would think since Lincoln. Many people were deeply concerned not to publicly oppose Johnson on what had become—terribly so—his war."
"People were quite certain that not only would a public statement against Vietnam vex the maximum leader, but it would probably vex a lot of white liberals in America who were still on the Vietnam train and cut into the funding of SCLC especially. Some people saw a person of religious faith—especially a person of ministerial calling—as out of place entering into what they would define as a political question. Down deep within all of it was America's racist attitude, which essentially said, 'It's all right, King, for you to talk about colored things, but when it comes to foreign policy, that's our business. We really don't want to hear anything from you about it because you're not qualified.'"
BY THE MID-1960s, King was looking for the right venue to speak out about the war, one that would welcome his religious concerns. The invitation to address Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam at their gathering in New York made the greatest sense to him.
In fall 1966, Andrew Young, a member of King's staff, asked Harding to write a draft speech for the occasion. "I spent Christmas break focused on that speech," said Harding. "By and large Martin seemed fairly satisfied with what I provided, and most of the speech was based on that draft.
"In making that speech King, in a sense, caught up with the more radical folks within the freedom movement, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). From the context of their gallant work in Southern rural communities, SNCC was coming into touch early with the boys coming back dead from being drafted into that war. SNCC wanted real questions raised about what it meant for these young men supposedly to fight for democracy in southeast Asia when there was no democracy for them in southwest Georgia."
WHAT HARDING DRAFTED is truly a prophetic American masterpiece. The address opened by acknowledging that the task of opposing one's own government, especially in time of war, "is often a vocation of agony."
King outlined seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into his "field of moral vision." First, the war was an "enemy of the poor." Second, the war was racist. Third, silence about the war was undermining his legitimacy in advocating nonviolence. Fourth, the mission of the SCLC was "to save the soul of America." It was a vision not limited to "certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear." Fifth, upon receiving the Nobel Prize for peace in 1964, King accepted a commission from the whole world, a calling that took him "beyond national allegiances." Sixth, he was a Christian and minister of Jesus Christ. Seventh, he was a child of the living God, and as such, "called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls 'enemy,' for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers."
Having established his lineage and the road that led him from Montgomery, Alabama, to the pulpit at Riverside Church, King (and Harding) used the scalpel of prophecy to lay open an alternative history to that trumpeted by the government and powers-that-be. Simple human compassion for the ordinary people of Vietnam was the starting place for all the political analysis and history that followed. "They must see Americans as strange liberators," said King.
The speech then moved seamlessly to deep concern about American troops caught in the "brutalizing process of war," including the ravages of spiritual violence. "We are adding cynicism to the process of death," preached King, "for they must know after a short period [in Vietnam] that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved."
THEN THE SPEECH takes a turn—one that sets it apart from others. "The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit," instructed King, "and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing 'clergy and laymen concerned' committees for the next generation. … Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God."
It is here that Harding lifted the thread to where America is today. "How does one pick up at this moment the fundamental sense of identity that Martin was working from at that moment?" asked Harding. "The issue for now is not simply how similar the externals are [between Vietnam and Iraq], but where are we in our struggle around certain questions. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, the peacemaker, who called others to be peacemakers as a part of our identity as children of the living God?
"We have to ask, what is patriotism? What is nationalism? What does it mean to follow the national leaders into the destruction of others of God's children? On one simple level it's the kind of question that dear beloved Muhammad Ali was raising in his heyday when he said, 'No Viet Cong ever called me Nigga.' That's another way of insisting that we not be slaves to the mentality of our leaders and their institutions. What does it mean to take seriously this whole idea that our national identity is secondary to our spiritual identity, and has to come under the scrutiny of our spiritual identity?
"What does it do to the Christian faith," continued Harding, "when we recognize that our community began in a setting where most [early believers] were outcasts from the empire's power? What does it mean when the Christian community now identifies itself with the empire, apologizes for the empire, and goes to war along with the empire?" Our identification with empire, Harding said, "throws us off. Puts us off balance. The whole issue of identity then becomes a critical question."
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote, "Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion, and one does that only at great political and existential risk." For King, it was indeed an "existential risk." He raised up previously silenced voices. He named names—identifying the shackles on the soul of America and who held the keys. With the "Beyond Vietnam" speech, he delivered a prophetic witness of the sort described by Brueggemann, one that "created a future quite different from the one that royal domination intended to permit." A year later to the day, a bullet took down the body of Martin Luther King Jr.
"NOW LET US BEGIN," concluded King that night at Riverside Church. "Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world … Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full [human beings], and we send our deepest regrets? ...
"And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. … 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."