One Virtuous Man

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.

4 thoughts on “One Virtuous Man

  1. Domza

    Hi Don,
    In the same year as MLK’s speech, Che Guevara’s last year on earth, El Che sent from Bolivia to Havana a speech known as the “Message to the Tricontinental” or otherwise the “Create two, three… many Vietnams” speech. It can be found here:
    http://www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1967/04/16.htm
    MLK was killed early in the following year. In both cases the direct connection between their words and their bloody deaths (both shot in cold blood) is universally understood.
    Those of us who clearly remember those days can feel at times that there was a set-back at that time that has lasted more than forty years. A closer examination of history shows this to be a depressive illusion, because plenty has happened, not least here in South Africa.
    Nevertheless, as I think you have shown, the crisis that we face is in general terms the same crisis; and the question remains, what must we do “in earnest and with effect”?
    In my opinion, it is not helpful to draw an imaginary division between the one virtuous man and the nine hundred and nonety-nine patrons of virtue. Such a conception comes, I suspect, from a person who is suspicious of democracy and of organisation.
    In South Africa, after all our struggles, we do not hold the vote “cheap”.
    So, I find this mixture of yours ambiguous, to say the least. The praise of the individual in opposition to the social, the praise of the pacifists Tolstoy and Gandhi, the imaginary Christ-like sacrifice of truth on a scaffold; all of these things carry the angst of apparent morality, but notably avgoid the question of what is to be done “in earnest and with effect”.
    Che Guevara did not avoid such questions. He is loved and respected because he did not duck any moral or practical questions. His work continued, in Africa as well as South America, and it contributed to the freedom of many countries, including South Africa and not long afterwards Bolivia, the country where he died.
    But no doubt we have to do better than Che and especially we must follow up on the art of organising, which was what did prevail in Bolivia and led to the vote for Evo Morales.
    I think we have to learn some definite lessons. The vote is not cheap. Organising is better than preaching, and organizing is more fundamental than military power. There must be less crucifixions, please. We have had enough of them.

  2. Don Bacon

    Hi Domza,
    Of course we must be suspicious of democracy when it is used as a mere cover for “deciders,” the Hamiltonian elite, to determine what’s best for us.
    So in this case it becomes more important than ever to honor the people who buck the “democratic” tide that flows against our real interests, flows against the truth and against morality. People like MLK and Smedley Butler in the USA, Che Guevara in Latin America (where one sees many people wearing shirts bearing Che’s likeness) and Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa.
    These are the people whom history calls to the fore when the vote no longer works, when the vote is used merely to legalize and finance terrible policies and when the real “vote” comes on the streets, in the channels of public discourse and in peoples’ hearts.
    We honor these people not to divide them from the on-lookers but to provide a pole-star for what our policies ought to be. And these policies depend upon a changed inner vision that these few virtuous men and women (yes, I’m thinking of HC) bring us.
    Thoreau: “America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is fought; but surely it cannot be freedom in a merely political sense that it is meant. Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant. [Next Thoreau engages in one of his favortite activities — word-play.] Now that the republic–the res-publica–has been settled, it is time to look after the res-privata–the private state–to see, as the Roman Senate charged its consuls, ‘ne quid res-PRIVATA detrimenti caparet,’ that the private state receive no detriment.”
    The people I (and you) have mentioned have the high calling of asking us to look inward, to examine our own beliefs, our own morality and our own actions. From these appraisals, we can hope, will come a better world “in earnest and with effect”.

  3. Domza

    Hi Don,
    Thanks for your very interesting reply.
    Let me first confess that “Domza” is “Dominic”. Domza has been my moniker (thanks to “Heppy” who stuck it on me) for a long time now but I have been frequenting JWN for even longer. Hence I have been living with two identities, and I forgot which one I was for a moment. So perhaps I had better reunite myself around “Domza” from now on.
    This public-private thing is very interesting and paradoxical. I mean, for example, in the United States it appears to be practically impossible to organise an autonomous mass movement. In the “land of the free”, the reverence for the state and for state-related institutions such as the “official” political parties reaches heights that are unknown elsewhere, and at election times all other formations practically disappear. That is extraordinary from my point of view and experience.
    You seem to have an exaggerated concept of both public and of private, and then an area in between – which in other places is the locus of free association and therefore of the genesis of political activity – that in the USA is like a desert. Hence you are in total extremely conservative, and very little changes.

  4. Don Bacon

    Hi Domza,
    Well, it’s not impossible to organize a mass movement in the US. The Obama movement was impressive. But it is faced, as you correctly analyze, with a reverence for the state which I’m sure will subvert its intentions. We now have “executive privilege” and little democracy in major matters. Obama is merely a new decider.
    Others have made the point that it is the American people’s fault that the US does the wrong things, and the people need to change. I, on the other hand, believe that the people have lost any influence on what these “privileged” people do. Either way, it is important to look inward and get our own personal affairs in order, either to influence the “privileged” or to find refuge from them.
    As MLK said, we need to examine the reasons for “a society gone mad on war” and its impact “for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in [the current wars],” and make some changes because “the choice is ours.”
    The ongoing, worsening economic recession and US national bankruptcy only makes this more important.
    Once to every man and nation
    Comes the moment to decide,
    In the strife of truth and falsehood,
    For the good or evil side;

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