MLK Day, 2009
The following radio address is the speech given by Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in 1967. The full transcript is available from the UC Berkeley archives. In it, he talks for twenty-three minutes—at times employing exacting historical detail—about the Vietnam War and its effects on the Vietnamese, Americans and the U.S. role from the very beginning. This was back in ‘67, when many Americans were barely aware of the conflict in the first place. Listen to the speech below and hear a brilliantly gifted orator whose philosophy matched the power of his speech.
Sadly, even forty years later, much of what Dr. King had to say can still be said today, at most changing a name here or there. His anti-militarism and anti-imperialism is without compare among almost all of our elected officials (with a few exceptions). Even the most progressive of the movers and shakers of modern-day Washington must cower in the shade of his righteousness and outright bravery. There is really no comparing King with Obama; all the political cartoons and articles depicting King’s approval of Obama to the contrary, it is likely that King would have been deeply disappointed with and strongly opposed to many of Obama’s basic policy positions—especially his support of continued American militarism and empire.
King’s words are so eloquent, it is difficult to cite only a few; but here are several interesting citations from the speech linked above that still have enormous significance today.
“This reveals that millions have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism, to the high grounds of firm dissent, based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Now, of course, one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. It’s a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told, and I say that those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who opposes the war in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our soldiers is a person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition.”
The fate of those supporting peace has not changed in the slightest, with the ignorant and afraid still shouting “traitor!” whenever they hear a word against prevailing American foreign policy. King’s speech would likely not have been carried by any of the mainstream media, except for snippets with which they would have assassinated his character and questioned his loyalty to America.
“…I watched the [Poverty] program broken as if it was 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. And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.”
In the 21st century, the ratio of money invested per slain foreigner versus spent on “person classified as poor” probably hasn’t changed for the better. Recent events have shown that, while the U.S. government is willing to throw hundreds of billions every year at making war and, recently, at bailing out the richest .1% when they destroyed the American economy, it is supremely tight-fisted with even a few paltry millions for the poor. Even King’s at-times lugubrious vision could scarcely have predicted such a situation.
“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 hope of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their brothers, and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. […] Now, I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
King’s disappointment in America today would likely know no bounds, as he watched the exact same poor who were marched to war over forty years ago, once again marched to war—this time without even a draft to force them. No, this time, the poor would be effectively forced into service by horrifying economic conditions that offer the only hope of survival for them and their families.
“The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support and all the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy.”
Change “Vietnamese” to “Afghanistani” or “Iraqi” and the sentence applies just as well today.
“It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. […] Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
And, perhaps if we wait forty more years, King’s vision of an America that declares “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism” will come true. But, and this is important, that is highly unlikely in the next four years, as the incoming president, while perhaps understanding of King’s empathy, does not at all agree that America is on the wrong track with its pursuit of empire and repeated attempts to control the fate of the world by military means. Where King wanted to abolish the military and imperial adventures, Obama wants to increase and expand a military that already costs five times more than that of King’s day.
“Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster. America has strayed to the far country of racism and militarism.”
It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what the mainstream media would have done to King today. Doubtless he would have undergone one character assassination after another for his “lack of patriotism” or, more likely, he would have been ignored entirely. There are many voices like his today and they are not to be heard in the mainstream newspapers or television news programs; instead they exercise their freedom of speech into a vacuum. The words which are allowed to fall on the ears of middle America are carefully controlled to paint the desired picture of America—the shining city on the hill that Dr. King had long ago already discovered was a fiction.
Emphasis added by the author in all citations.