Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
In the late 1960’s a fellow officer of mine, an African-American, call him Captain Em, was quite upset that Dr. King had come out against the Vietnam War. King, Captain Em stated to me, was fully justified in seeking better civil rights but he had no business commenting upon the foreign policy of the United States, particularly the righteous campaign in Vietnam (which was to result in the deaths of 58,000 US troops, average age of 19, and millions of Vietnamese). I disagreed with Captain Em, but at the time I wasn’t sure why. Now I know better.
What are the responsibilities of citizenship, after all?
Henry David Thoreau, at a time when the US was invading Mexico, wrote about the functions of good citizenship in his essay on Civil Disobedience.
What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot to-day? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes the petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and God-speed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man.
Dr. King, like Tolstoy and Gandhi, was familiar with Thoreau’s work, and also was particularly influenced by “Civil Disobedience.” So when King decided in 1967 to oppose the Vietnam War he was prepared for the enmity that naturally came from his regular supporters such as Captain Em. Thoreau had warned him:
And very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.
Dr. King delivered his little-known speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.
First, Dr. King addressed the Captain Ems of the world.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
Then he talked about the importance of Vietnam, and that he had seven reasons for opposing the war.
Since I am a preacher by trade, 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 the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of 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.
His second reason for speaking out:
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.
He addressed the futility of violence:
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?
The soul of America was at stake:
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present 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.
He had earned the Nobel Peace Prize:
I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.
He was after all a minister.
To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?
And a final reason:
I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
Then Dr. King got to the meat of it. This madness must cease!:
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
It was a fairly long speech, with a lot of logical thought, and you might want to read it all. Here’s how Dr. King ended his plea for sanity (which was largely disregarded):
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the callling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. 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 men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.
And that was the anti-war side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an honest man and a patriot, who was on that day nearly forty-two years ago (and at many other times) Thoreau’s one virtuous man. I bet Captain Em now thinks so too, if he’s still around. I hope he is.
Martin Luther King? He’s still with us, for sure.