American schoolchildren know that Dr Martin Luther King Jr believed in the power of Christian love to redeem a world filled with hatred. But far fewer know his radical critique of American capitalism and war.
King stands apart from all other figures in US history. He is the only private citizen honored by a national holiday and with a personal monument on the National Mall in Washington, D. C.
This is both a testimony to King’s personal brilliance and to the importance of keeping that brilliance contained within parameters that are acceptable to American capitalism. On a postage stamp, and within the tributes coming from politicians, King becomes a paragon of national redemption, a symbol of America’s ability to overcome racism and put the nasty business of slavery and Jim Crow behind us.
Martin Luther King’s speech at Riverside Church in Harlem on April 4, 1967, explodes these myths and forces us to accept the fact that the most prominent and celebrated black person in US history is someone who challenged capitalism, nationalism, militarism, and America’s arrogant belief in its inherent righteousness.
The Riverside address, which has come to be known as the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, was also a challenge to the prevailing liberal consensus that civil rights activists had to, at all costs, preserve a “coalition” with the Democratic Party and President Lyndon Johnson.
There was a powerful logic to this argument. After all, Johnson had successfully pushed through the two major legislative achievements of the civil rights movement: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
If Johnson asked civil rights leaders to be quiet about Vietnam, they had something to show for it — and he did ask. When he learned in 1965 that King opposed the Vietnam War, Johnson personally asked him not to speak out.
King had echoed the line of the “doves” in Washington: supporting “peace” and “negotiations,” condemning both sides of the conflict, and not singling out Johnson or the underlying aims of the war. Whitney Young of the Urban League stated plainly: “Johnson needs a consensus. If we are not with him on Vietnam, then he is not going to be with us on civil rights.”
What About Vietnam?
And so it was against the advice of his closest advisers and allies that King came to the podium at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. All 2,700 seats were filled, along with an additional 1,200 portable chairs, and those not able to gain admission stretched for blocks outside.
No national civil rights leader had been willing to stick their neck out on the Vietnam issue since 1966.
In the first week of that year, Tuskegee University student, civil rights activist, and Navy veteran Sammy Younge Jr was murdered for attempting to use a whites-only gas station. Two days later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) released an antiwar statement — the first, and for a long time the only, civil rights organization to do so.
The SNCC statement went beyond calls for “peace.” It favorably compared the US government’s “enemy” — the Vietnamese — with black American activists like Younge. Both were fighting for freedom against the same enemy, SNCC argued. This provoked a firestorm of accusations of communism, disloyalty, and treason.
By the end of 1966, King had come around to SNCC’s point of view, but silently. King’s speech at Riverside quoted from an antiwar statement: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” King began here in earnest: “That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
King confessed the “agony” of speaking out and described how he had been counseled not to. He repeated the voices all around him: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? . . . Peace and civil rights don’t mix.”
King then explained why he defied this advice.
The first reason — “obvious” and “facile,” according to King — was the effect of the Vietnam War on the War on Poverty in the United States.
King called Johnson’s antipoverty programs a “shining moment” of “real promise for the poor, both black and white.” But then came the buildup to the war in Vietnam, “and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war,” King said. “So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
Next, King highlighted the fact that the war in Vietnam was being fought disproportionately by poor people and by black people. The very people denied democracy and justice at home were being sent to die for it abroad.
“So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens,” King said, “as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” King talked about watching them, “in brutal solidarity,” burning huts in a poor village, “but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago,” he said. “I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
King then turned to what he had learned from young black people who had, beginning in the mid-1960s, risen up in US cities in Northern and Western states, not the South — uprisings that were often dismissed as senseless “riots.”
King talked with young people who participated in the uprisings and tried to teach the importance of nonviolence, but he instead got a lesson in American hypocrisy. The young people shot back: “What about Vietnam?” King said at Riverside, “They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted.”
King echoed Malcolm X’s indictment of American hypocrisy: “Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
The speech would have been explosive enough if King had stopped there. But he didn’t.
He went further, calling on Christian principles of universalism to explain and defend his internationalist stance and challenging his listeners to consider the war from the Vietnamese perspective. “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,” he said.
King described his ministry as a calling that stretches beyond national allegiances. About the Christians who counseled silence, he replied: “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?”
Jesus, he reminded his listeners, was the one who loved his enemies “so fully that he died for them. What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?”
King asked the audience to consider the war from the Vietnamese point of view. He recounted the long history of Vietnamese people struggling for political independence and of US attempts to reimpose colonialism. “They must see Americans as strange liberators . . . So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children,” he said.
The Vietnamese must notice that the United States seems opposed to economic justice in Vietnam, King said, “What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform?” he asked.
Challenging the accepted wisdom about the National Liberation Front (the Vietnamese organization leading the resistance), King questioned whether US government professions of fighting for “democracy” were sincere if the NLF was to be excluded from any diplomatic settlement:
What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam, and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will not have a part?
The American Malady
King worried out loud about the fate of American troops forced to participate in this corrupt enterprise. “Before long, they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese,” King said, “and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”
King called for an immediate end to the bombing, the removal of American troops, and — to thunderous applause — support and encouragement for conscientious objectors in the United States.
In the final section of the speech, King laid out an even more damning indictment. Vietnam, he argued, was “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” As King put it, “such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam.”
The Vietnam War was part of a pattern of military intervention “on the wrong side of the world revolution,” King told the audience. The war was fought on behalf of protecting investments in Guatemala, for example, he said. While the world was moving toward revolution, the United States was “antirevolutionary.”
In order to “get on the right side of the world revolution,” King said, the United States must “must undergo a radical revolution of values.” Instead of being driven to war to protect profits, American society must prioritize people, King said.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” King argued. “It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Making that change would require a fundamental reorientation of the “giant triplets” of American society:
We must rapidly begin, we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
King got the response he expected. “What is that goddamn nigger preacher doing to me?” President Johnson fumed in the Oval Office when he learned of the content of King’s Riverside address.
The president wasn’t the only one to see King’s speech as outrageous. King’s staff had warned that speaking out would cause donations from Northern liberals to decline. Opinion polls conducted just prior to King’s death one year later indicated that 72 percent of white people and 55 percent of black people disapproved of his opposition to Vietnam.
This sentiment was no doubt influenced by the avalanche of media criticism that King endured.
The day after the Riverside speech, an estimated 168 newspapers attacked King.
The Washington Post called the Riverside speech a “grave injury” to the civil rights movement: “[King] has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” The New York Times called it a “wasteful and self-defeating” foray into foreign policy, “a fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate,” which did a “disservice” to both.
Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report all came out against King. Time ran an article called “Confusing the Cause” that called King a “drawling bumpkin, so ignorant that he had not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his native haunts and away from his natural calling.”
Apart from SNCC, the major civil rights leaders and organizations refused to stand by King. The organization he founded a decade before, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, issued a statement disassociating itself from King’s remarks. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP said that “civil rights groups do not have enough information on Vietnam, or on foreign policy, to make it their cause.”
In May, King compared himself to socialist leader Eugene Debs who went to prison for opposing World War I. Depressed and attacked from all sides, he cried frequently.
King’s Powerful Commitment
At the height of his influence, King was constantly writing and giving speeches — at a pace of nearly three thousand words a day by one estimate.
Most of his speeches were dynamic, improvisational riffs that combined familiar themes and set pieces in unique ways as needed. His final speech — known by the iconic phrase “I’ve been to the mountaintop” — given on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated, is a good example. His address at the 1963 March on Washington is known by the refrain of a section he added spontaneously — “I have a dream” — and has a more radical content than is often acknowledged.
But the Riverside address is different. It was written out several days in advance, and King followed the text nearly word for word. Knowing it would invite controversy and counterattack, King wanted to be precise and not be misquoted.
“Beyond Vietnam” therefore represents some of King’s most radical ideas in carefully crafted prose. It has much to teach new generations about a historical icon, held up to so much official esteem, who actually offered a greater challenge to the status quo than is commonly understood.
To quote another radical activist who gave an important speech in the month of April:
During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice . . . After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them . . . while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance.
Those are the words of the Russian revolutionary Lenin, who suffered a distorted canonization in very different circumstances.
Martin Luther King –who in life was wiretapped, hounded, imprisoned, slandered, and ultimately assassinated — has been canonized in contemporary US society in order to rob his ideas of their substance.
This isn’t just about King as an individual, but about the movement he represents — the long black freedom struggle in the United States. The Riverside Church speech represents the dangerous potential of the black freedom struggle to pull apart the whole fabric of American capitalism.
Tragically, half a century after “Beyond Vietnam,” America is still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, and the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism haven’t been conquered. In fact, they seem to be the guiding principles of the current administration.
While the political elite certainly hasn’t undergone the kind of revolution of values that King argued for, there is considerable evidence that large sections — perhaps even a majority of the population — is moving in that direction. The most popular politician in the United States today is a democratic socialist, and calls to restructure the American edifice so that it no longer produces beggars make sense to more and more people.
Martin Luther King’s urgent plea at the end of “Beyond Vietnam” is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago:
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. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”