Skip to content

Honoring the legacy and message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – Part II

January 15, 2020

In Part I, we looked at some of the more radical and less-known positions that Dr. King had, particularly in the last years of his life. In Part II, we want to explore one of the systems of oppression, which he called evil triplets, militarism. 

In King’s 1967 speech at Riverside Church, the speech he gave that laid out his analysis of the US war in Vietnam, the civil rights leader made the important link between justice in our communities and justice abroad. 

Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

The civil rights leader could not reconcile the massive amounts of money the US spent on militarism, while at the same time not making sure that the people living in the US had access to basic rights like housing, education, health care, etc.

As Dr. King stated, he had seven reasons to speak out against the US war in Vietnam. Here is the third reason he gives, one that speaks to the moral bankruptcy of US foreign policy.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They 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 in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

In his Beyond Vietnam speech, Dr. King also demonstrates a sharp understanding of US foreign policy and a great deal of compassion for the Vietnamese people. This sharp analysis of global politics was part of the black liberation tradition, from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson to Malcolm X, Angela Davis and groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and Black Lives Matter.

Dr. King then brings his critique of the Vietnam war back to how it connects to US domestic policies, particularly economic priorities, by stating:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Dr. King’s deeply intersectional and passionate analysis of US militarism should provide us with critical aspects of resistance to militarism today. However, if the resistance to militarism does not bring a critique of capitalism, white supremacy and other systems of oppression, we will be ineffective in our efforts to not only resist US militarism, but to be able to work from a solid foundation in order to build a better society.

In Part III, we will look at how the local news media reported on the 1963 march on Washington, the murder of the four girls in Alabama and how Dr. King’s death was covered.

%d bloggers like this: