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.