The Land Beyond | Sojourners

The Land Beyond

Reflections on Martin Luther King's 1967 speech, "Beyond Vietnam"
Image via Seattle.roamer / Flickr
Image via Seattle.roamer / Flickr

Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous speech was his “I Have a Dream” address to the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC. And history has trapped Dr. King in that speech for civil right every since. But the movement of King from 1963 to his death in 1968 took him deeper: from his pleas for racial equality under the law to his call for the moral transformation of America. And that call was never better expressed than his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967.

King’s speechwriter for that historic and transformational address was Dr. Vincent Harding, who became a personal mentor for me and Sojourners in the years that followed. On this 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s prophetic address, we ask you to read our 1983 cover story by Vincent Harding on the speech, and to read the full address by Dr. King.

The timing of this anniversary could not be more relevant. Dr. King famously critiqued the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism in his Riverside address.

Today, President of the United States Donald Trump represents all three of these shameful giants of injustice. President Trump deliberately ran his campaign on racial bigotry, and has begun his presidency with an agenda of white nationalism, a backlash to everything Dr. King stood for and accomplished. Trump and his white base would reverse the influence of Dr. King and the civil rights movement, and turn back the clock on racial equity and healing in America.

Trump’s life is the embodiment of the ethic of utter materialism — living his whole existence for things over people. And Trump would solve the world’s problems by bombing the “shirt” out of our adversaries, placing military priorities over civilian lives, and putting radically increased military spending directly over the lives of our poorest citizens.

Trump literally worships the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism. And Trump’s is a false worship, one that threatens the very integrity and future of America.

On its 50th anniversary, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic speech is as timely and prophetic as it ever was. It is morally directed at the shameful presidency of Donald Trump. And our answer to King’s challenge will determine the future of our country and our children. Read it, and act. —Jim Wallis, April 4, 2017

This article originally appeared in the January 1983 issue of Sojourners

Somehow Martin King refuses to die within us, among us. Fifteen years after it was delivered, his historic Riverside Church speech, "Beyond Vietnam," reappears and thrusts upon us a King we had largely chosen to forget. Even now it would be tempting to take this cry from the heart of a driven, searching, magnificent brother and file it away as a document for museums and other honorable places.

But neither the fiery signals rising from some of our latest potential Vietnams in Central America, South Africa, or the Middle East, nor the mounting anguish of the betrayed and disinherited of our own land will allow us to escape the unresolved issues of the past or avoid the costly and accurate vision of our comrade in the faith. The speech not only requires us to struggle once more with the meaning of King, but it also presses us to wrestle as he did, with all of the tangled, bloody, and glorious meaning of our nation (and ourselves), its purposes (and our own), its direction (and our own), its hope (and our own).

Recently the name of Martin Luther King Jr. has been in the public arena primarily as the person whose birthday should or should not become a legal holiday. But this rather smoothed-off, respectable national hero is not the King of "Beyond Vietnam." Those who have, with all the best and most understandable intentions, pressed for King's birthday as an official holiday seem to have enshrined the King of 1963. In a way, that is a more comfortable image for us all: the triumphant King of the March on Washington, calling a nation and a world to a magnificent dream of human solidarity.

But all that,was before the assassins' bombs ripped out the life of the Sunday School children in Birmingham, before the fires of rebellion scourged the northern cities and moved King into Chicago, before the cry of black power was raised, before courageous and radical spokespersons like Malcolm X and the leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had begun to testify against the steadily rising tide of destructive U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, before King decided to break what he called the silence of betrayal and speak his own truth concerning his nation's role in Vietnam and in all the world's non-white revolutionary struggles.

Sometimes we wish to forget that by April 1967, King was a beleaguered public figure. He had refused to join the fearful litany of condemnation mounted by the civil rights establishment against the militant demand for black power, and for that he was fiercely attacked by moderates and liberals. On the other hand, some of the younger black and white radicals seemed to think that their best contributions to revolution were measured by the harshness of their criticism of King's nonviolence and "moderation."

At the same time, he had also begun to be heard publicly as a critic of the war in Vietnam, and from within the black community and among the ranks of many of its self-proclaimed white allies, King was bitterly rebuked for taking on the issue of the war. Some called it a diversion from the issue of black rights. Others feared the terrible rage of Lyndon Johnson, who brooked no opposition (certainly not from black Martin Luther King!) to his destructive policies.

Some members of King's own Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) board of directors opposed his role in the anti-war movement, partly because they had seen the way in which the liberal white allies of the movement had withdrawn financial support from the radicalized young people of SNCC who dared stand in solidarity with the Vietnamese opponents of America's intervention. The SCLC officials and advisers knew such a fate could, and probably would, befall their organization as well. Of course, other persons--black and white--were simply dead to the movement of history.

In the face of all this, partly because of all this, King persisted, and the Riverside speech--delivered exactly one year before his assassination, was the most notable result of his decision. Immediately the drumbeat of harsh criticism was heightened. It came from many sources, including such black stalwarts as Jackie Robinson, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Carl Rowan.

On the white side, one typical response emerged from the liberal/paternal editorial pages of the Washington Post. There the reaction to "Beyond Vietnam" was that King had uttered "bitter and damaging allegations and inferences that he did not and could not document," and had thereby "done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies...." It was the Post's considered judgment that "many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people."

(Later, of course, the Post and many other similarly well-informed journals would carry on their own front pages, direct from government files, all the documentation for King's condemnation of America's role that he had not bothered to supply. And history will yet judge the "usefulness" of King to the cause of humanity and to the redemption of his nation and his people.)

Whatever the judgment of others might be, by April 1967 King had clearly decided that the federal government was not among his "natural allies." He knew that its leadership and several of its agencies had been carrying on an insidious campaign to subvert and discredit him personally, and he was well aware that they perceived the mounting force of black northern militance as a serious threat whose power and direction they could neither predict nor control.

Moreover, when King looked at Vietnam, and beyond, he felt that he had no choice but to identify his own government as the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world." For he was convinced that his vocation as a minister of Christ and his broader, deeper calling as a child of the loving God of the universe meant that he must cry out against America's wanton destruction of the lives of the poor in Vietnam (both Vietnamese people and American soldiers) and the betrayal of the hopes of the poor at home. This was one of the major themes of the Riverside speech.

In addition, King was prepared by then to urge all Americans to seek out their own highest possible level of protest and resistance against their government's role in Southeast Asia. He was even ready to take on the dangerous issue of calling for all draft-age persons, including normally exempt clergy and poorly informed black and poor people, who opposed the war to declare themselves conscientious objectors. (King was deeply troubled by the fact that the black church lagged so far behind in its responsibility to teach its young people about the choice of conscientious objection as a logical Christian alternative to the military.)

Even more important, King insisted that we look "beyond Vietnam." Indeed, for our purposes, in our times, that may have been the most significant contribution of his speech, of the last years of his life--this public wrestling with the role of America in the world, this agonized calling of his "beloved nation" away from its destructive, inhumane choices, toward its own best truth.

As King saw it, in our overseas relationships, our nation had chosen to be "on the wrong side of a world revolution." And at home, "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." (Of course, King was simply the best known of many persons who were pressing that concern. As early as the 1940s, W.E.B. DuBois had predicted that this country must choose to develop greater democracy and support for socialist alternatives at home and abroad or "descend into military fascism which will kill all dreams of democracy.")

For King, in the light of such national and international realities, there was no humane alternative for America save revolution--nonviolent revolution to be sure, but revolution nevertheless. In "Beyond Vietnam" he spoke primarily of a "revolution in values...a significant and profound change in American life and policy," but he also made it clear that there could be no change in people's values that was not tied to radical change in the structures of their society.

If we desire greater clarity concerning King's approach to these crucial issues in his last months, then his Riverside speech must be read in the context of at least two other readily available documents. One is his sermon/essay "Non-violence and Social Change," which appears in the posthumously published collection of his writings The Trumpet of Conscience. The second is David Garrow's recent, carefully researched book The FBI and Martin Luther King Jr., especially his chapters, "The Informant" and "The Radical Challenge of Martin King."

In these documents we are reminded that by the end of 1967, King himself had moved beyond a narrow approach to the war in Vietnam and had long before rejected a single narrow focus on black rights in the U.S. By the end of that crucial year King was openly declaring that "the dispossessed of this nation--the poor, both white and Negro--live in a "cruelly unjust society. They must.organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of ... their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing ... to lift the load of poverty."

By then he, was vaguely but courageously advocating campaigns of "massive civil disobedience ... to compel federal authorities to yield to the mandates of justice." Originally that was supposed to be the purpose of the Poor People's Campaign: the opening of a nationwide movement of "massive civil disobedience" on behalf of radical, humanizing change in America.

Moreover, by the end of 1967, King was looking at the anti-imperialist movements of Latin America and declaring that "so many of Latin America's problems have roots in the United States of America that we need to form a solid united movement, nonviolently conceived and carried through...." For he was convinced that "Americans must help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism."

Whether we want him or not, this is the King who refuses to die within us, among us. This is the King who was under constant covert surveillance by the FBI and other organs of the federal government, whose organization was infiltrated by at least one FBI informer. This is the King our government feared. It was this King of whom David Garrow could accurately say, "In the last 12 months of his life, King represented a far greater political threat to the reigning American government than he ever had before." (Therefore, this is the King whose assassination was surely not the work of some lone and unabetted white racist criminal.)

For this Martin Luther King Jr. there seemed by 1967 to be only two authentic alternatives available to those compassionate children of God who deeply sensed their vocation and their ultimate identity, and who at the same time lived as citizens of this destructive, anti-revolutionary, but not hopeless, nation: either we could confine ourselves to courageous lighting of brush fires around the nation and across the world, until the last terrible fire destroyed us all, or we could dedicate ourselves to what he called "the long and bitter--but beautiful--struggle for a new world," beginning with the revolutionary transformation of America. Of course, King was enough of a dialectician to know that such a commitment would not end our work in the brush-fire brigade, but it would place that work in context and give us a larger task, a deeper purpose, a greater hope to which we might set ourselves.

This sense of revolutionary vocation did not come easily to King. It was not the life for which he once had thought he was preparing. The relatively secure joint career of pastor and college professor had seemed an attractive possibility. But by 1967 he saw no escape from God's movement in history, and its urgent summons to a life of creative insecurity. So, with much fear and trembling, he answered the call, saying essentially, fittingly, "I can do no other."

Now, in the light of our nation's current realities, what shall we do with this King who saw 15 years ago that "we can't solve our problem ... until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power" in the United States? How shall we grapple with the vision of this man who knew that he was engaged in "much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes," who realized that the black movement was "forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws--racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism." King said that the black freedom struggle was "exposing the evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced."

Of course, at our best we know that the fundamental question is not what we shall do with King, but what we shall do with ourselves, with our nation, with our children, with our poor, with our sick, with our fears, with our joblessness, with our system of economic injustice and military destructiveness. What shall we do with the poisons in our food, in our air, in our water, in our hearts? What shall we do with our broken hope in one traditional political party or another, in one leader or another, in one worn-out, no-longer-radical, "radical" solution after another? In other words, the question focuses into one critical issue: now, 15 years after Riverside, 14 years after Memphis, eight years after the fall of Saigon, now in the time of Reagan and company, are we prepared to go beyond Central America--to go even beyond the current inspiring mass anti-nuclear protest marches--to face what King called "the real issue...the radical reconstruction of Society itself"?

Instead of enshrining him as a plastic, powerless hero of a nation that is not yet open to the coming of his vision, is it possible that those of us who want to be open must now sense our call to a different task? Is it possible that our best vocation begins as we examine with utmost seriousness his last, most radical hopes, and ponder what they mean for our lives? Is it possible that the state of our nation and our world now demands that we who consider ourselves part of King's company of experimenters with truth must commit ourselves to move with him, to press forward beyond him toward that fundamental transformation of ourselves and of America that is even more necessary in these days than ever before?

A variety of groups, networks, organizations, and fledgling movements are giving themselves to this urgent search for a radically transformed America, a search that begins with the commitment to personal transformation. They are exploring paths that take us beyond the sometimes war-weary categories of the most valiant Marxist/socialist/revolutionary visions and experiences of the past. They are seeking to understand the profoundly American ingredients of the revolution that we need, that our children must have. Among other things, they are asking questions concerning the public implications of our quest for personal self-discovery, about the meaning of American citizenship in our current age.

Ultimately, of course, each of us who has been touched most directly by the significant work of such organizations and by the meaning of King must decide what our responses will be. As we work toward such decisions perhaps it is more than naive optimism to sense that Ronald Reagan and the forces of reaction and fear that he seems to represent are not the beginning of something new in the United States but the danger-filled end of the line for a failing culture.

Perhaps the time is now ripe to begin to envision a new network, a hew gathering of forces, a new scattered/gathered community based on a profoundly humane, inclusively religious foundation. Perhaps it is past time for us to recognize all the intimations of new life that are already springing up within the shaken foundations of our nation. Perhaps three quarters of a million men, women, and children in New York's Central Park on June 12 were the harbingers of an army of hope. Perhaps we are part of the skin-shedding time that cannot be turned back.

King's movement beyond Vietnam and our current actions to break the bondage of cynicism, privatism, and despair may encourage us to move beyond the 1970s. For instance, we may begin to recognize that we can take all of the insights of personal transformation that have come out of our latest ongoing spiritual renascence and integrate them with a commitment to the radical re-creation of our nation. Constantly sensing new connections, we may find creative ways to share our insurgent hope for life and renewal and justice and peace with our sisters and brothers of every land, especially with those who are now ground down into the dirt, often to support our U.S. standard of living. We may listen to them, learn from them, hearing their voices from the base communities of Latin America, from the freedom churches of South Africa, from the bombed-out villages of the Middle East.

We have no clear models for doing all this, but there are inspirations everywhere, in Asia, Africa, Latin America, in our land, and in the whisper roaring of the wind and the dancing rhythms of the waters. We have no models for the new American society, but we know it must be. We know it must build our humanity and steadily diminish the power of the anti-human forces of greed, exploitation, fear, and all ideas of supremacy based on race, class, gender, or genes. It must hear the words of King ("The choice is between nonviolence and non-existence") and eschew all weapons of military destruction, all institutions whose lives are based on the assumptions that human problems can be solved by military force, by threats of annihilation.

Something within us (and we trust our intuition more fully in these times of feminine power) tells us that whatever the developing shape of our new society it must be structured so as to make the resources of Mother Earth available to all of her children, in as just and equitable a way as is possible. Somehow we know that our new directions must develop all our best capacities for creative self-government and cooperation.

It must create new forms and content for the education of our people toward their highest human capacities. It must put as many of us as possible in direct touch with the land and its teaching, nurturing forces. It must change our total relationship to the peoples of the land all over the world, bring us into a new sense of solidarity rather than exploitation in our dealings with the raw-materials producers of the earth.

Indeed, the movement that we shall take toward a new society must be such that it will bring us into solidarity with all who seek for the gift of their land, who seek for food for their children, who attempt to break the combination of despoiling, exploiting classes and institutions everywhere. Then, returning to the source, always, necessarily, our struggle must be such that it opens us to a new sense of ourselves, of our humanity, of our oneness with the created universe and its creator spirit.

To organize toward such a radical construction of America and ourselves, to work for such a vision, to struggle for such a vindication of the best hopes of the Kings and the A.J. Mustes, the Fannie Lou Hamers and the Randy Blackwells, the Dorothy Days and the Amzie Moores, the Clarence Jordans, the Paul Robesons and the Thomas Mertons of this land--that task will take all the creativity, all the courage, all the life force we can give. To be faithful to itself, our work will certainly demand that we move beyond King's last, uncertain vision of the Poor People's Campaign and truly honor him with audacious, creative thinking and organizing toward that which has never yet existed: a spiritually based, life-giving revolution, seeking for the fundamental reordering of the institutions of society in the world's most technologically organized, militarily equipped, and materialistically oriented society.

Moreover, for King, for ourselves, for our children, we are challenged by his vision to leap even further, to conceive of such a revolution based essentially on the commitment to new life through nonviolence, non-cooperation, massive civil disobedience, and love. It is an awesome responsibility, but does our God-given humanity leave us with any other authentic choice at this moment in history?

Lest there be any misunderstanding, one more word needs to be said. The movement with King beyond Vietnam, beyond El Salvador, even beyond South Africa, does not mean that we move away from any of the concrete struggles that are represented by those places. It surely does not mean that we lessen our commitment to the daily quests for justice in our own society on behalf of all those who are continually suffering attacks from the bastions of privilege and illegitimate power and authority. Rather, our commitment to the revolutionary transformation of ourselves and of American society gives us a context, a sense of direction. For as we engage in the dialectical exchange between daily struggles and larger vision, we may be reminded of certain basic realities. One of them is that our ultimate goal can no longer be seen as that of pressing the government of our nation for a change of its policies. Indeed, it cannot even be simply a goal of putting different men or women in the governmental structures and institutions that we now know.

Rather, our vision must be set toward creating and legitimating a new kind of government, one which will call forth our own best self-governing gifts as persons and communities, one which will surely break the unholy, traditional governmental alliances with militarism, racism, sexism, and economic imperialism, one which will move us insistently beyond the nationalism of our immaturity toward the recognition of our true global kinship.

Beyond Vietnam, beyond Memphis, beyond protest of every kind lies the unknown. And yet something within us knows the land for which we seek, the community that will nurture our humanity, the radically humanized America. At various moments in the heat of the struggles of the last quarter century we glimpsed it, felt it, knew it could be. (Perhaps it exists most vividly in the midst of struggle for that which is yet to be.) Most recently--in Central Park and in all the anti-nuclear central parks across the nation--we felt again its possibilities. Now we dare not betray that vision.

For beyond Vietnam lies the reality that we who share the best hopes and vision of King are essentially citizens of a nation that does not yet exist. And yet it does, it must, beginning in us. It is a nation that we must create, all of us, out of all the terrors and beauties of our history and our blood, out of all the dreams and wailings of our forebears, for all the colors and callings of our children.

Beyond Vietnam, beyond Central America, beyond the United States that we now know, beyond the women and men that we now are, we are called to create a new reality. Because King opened so much and had so much opened for him within the vortex of the black freedom movement, because his Riverside speech offers such a summons to us, perhaps it would be good to allow a poetic expression of that freedom movement to extend the final call to all who will hear, to all who will love, to all who will struggle, to all who will risk, to all who will dare to move forward beyond cynicism, privatism, fear, and the dark night of despair toward the coming of the morning:

Into your palm I place the ashes
Into your palm are the ashes of your
burnt in the Alabama night
Into your hand that holds your babies
into your palm that feeds your infants
into your palm that holds the work tools
I place the ashes of your brother and your
I place the ashes of your father and your
here are the ashes of your husbands and
your wives
Take the ashes of your nation
and create the cement to build again
Create the spirits to move again
Take this soul dust and begin again.

(Ed Bullins, Creation Spell)

Vincent Harding, a Sojourners contributing editor, was a professor of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Religion in Denver when this article appeared.

This appears in the January 1983 issue of Sojourners