Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Call for Peace as Racial Justice Still Rings


and In These Times

Posted: January 17, 2011 10:00 AM

I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., “broke the silence” on the war on Vietnam in 1967, he shattered the establishment rhetoric on America’s mission in Southeast Asia. His speech, “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break the Silence,” delivered at Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, still has revolutionary ring to it as we approach MLK Day more than 40 years later.

Taking a politically risky and unpopular stance — and bucking the advice of some of his most trusted advisors — King drew a link between the destruction of war in Vietnam and the devastation of America’s stratified society. He framed the independence struggle of the Vietnamese as the freedom struggle of communities of color at home.

Civil rights advocates who had preceded King had often bound up patriotism with ideas of racial uplift — for instance, in the Double V campaign of World War II. But King recognized the cancerous injustice of the Vietnam War:

If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.

Today, antiwar activism is much more entwined with movements for human rights and racial justice, thanks in large part to King’s prescience. But the march of war continues to trample souls, in distant battlefields and on blighted American streets. And some activists fear the antiwar movement has waned since the 2008 election, which drained momentum from the opposition that flourished under the Bush administration and left some groups less willing to challenge a presidency hailed as a civil rights victory to itself.

In the coming days, grassroots groups around the country will remember King’s stance on the war and take stock of how much, or how little, the country has progressed since King first broke his silence.

In New York City, Iraq Veterans against the War will bring together community members in the Bronx for a reading of King’s speech. IVAW organizer and Iraq veteran Andrew Johnson said that this time, the silence may be harder to penetrate:

The mobilization of the American people against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be more difficult than against Vietnam. Casualties are lower, of course. Also, there is no draft, which allows most of the American public to ignore the problem without facing such a direct impact as a loved one being drafted. Most major news outlets do not offer serious reports about the wars…. It is important to get messages like those from “Beyond Vietnam,” but it is hard to do in a climate of apathy.

When King told his audience, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home,” he inverted the prevailing notion that the price of national security would be borne solely by the country we designated as the enemy. He was advancing a globalization of the civil rights movement that was already underway. As historian Mary Dudziak has pointed out, “Third World” activists, embroiled in their on post-war, anti-colonial liberation movements, had watched the protests in Birmingham closely, seeking inspiration and a platform to challenge Washington’s hypocrisy.

King feared that eventually humankind’s capacity to self-destruct would grow faster than its capacity for compassion. Literary scholar David Bromwich wrote that King’s perspective on modern warfare was shaped by the fact that as technology evolved, “Things built over ages can be made to vanish in an instant under its annihilating stroke. That is what happened to the ancient culture, the farms, and the forests of Vietnam under the unleashed assault of American air power.” The methods of war are increasingly mechanized today, enabling an unmanned drone to destroy instantly an enemy on the ground, or the unfortunate civilians and children caught in the crosshairs.

Violence has a perverse way of reconfiguring social divides and loyalties, King noted:

So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

Tragically, the commemorations of King this year come just days after the shootings in Arizona exposed the violence poisoning the country’s political arena. The senselessness of the carnage bears out King’s imagery of “a society gone mad on war,” caught in a spiral of militarization that yielded only “might without morality, and strength without sight.”

Medea Benjamin of Code Pink told Colorlines that King’s uncompromising antiwar stance rings as true as ever today:

You change Vietnam to Iraq or you change Vietnam to Afghanistan, and you have the most powerful speech you can hear about why the wars that we’re engaged in are wrong, how they are wars against people of color, how they are racist wars, how we don’t care about our own soldiers — people who are struggling here at home just to get a job or an education, whom we’re sending overseas to kill poor people. Unfortunately, it’s not so much an echo of the past; it’s a clarion call to the present.

Other Kings

There is a Martin Luther King, Jr., that we may not recognize from elementary school textbooks, the human rights activist who has galvanized generations of resistance movements from the Horn of Africa to death row. Though many of his successors have taken a more radical tone or diverged from the nonviolent tactics he promote