April 4, 2017, by Charlotte Anscombe


Peter Ling, Professor of American Studies at The University of Nottingham, and author of the 2015 Martin Luther King biography, looks at the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Riverside Address 50 years ago.

April 4 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Riverside address, his outspoken denunciation of US policy in Vietnam. A year later to the day, he was murdered in Memphis. Half a century later, King’s words in “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence,” still speak to our times through their critique of militarism and appeal to recognize our common humanity. For this reason, April 4 is the real King Day.

Opposing the Vietnam War in the spring of 1967 was a stance that King’s closest advisors urged him not to take. Ironically, given that he was regarded by the FBI as the agent most directly involved in using King to advance the Communist cause, Stanley Levison was one of the strongest advocates of caution.

The white New Yorker, who had often assisted King with fund raising and other vital tasks, urged him not to step from the ranks of mainstream politics and associate himself with the radical fringe figures like Dr Benjamin Spock or outspoken black militants like Stokely Carmichael. King should bide his time until he could be assured of respectable company like New York Senator Bobby Kennedy, who had not yet declared himself. King, however, was adamant. Indeed, he blamed himself for failing to speak out sooner. The “time had come for real prophesy,” he declared, “and I’m willing to go down that road.” He knew he would draw public criticism and that this would translate into a further financial downturn for his already cash-strapped organization, but he wanted to speak the truth.

The truth he spoke was that in vital respects the United States was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” It was on the wrong side of the revolution sweeping the world, misguidedly believing that it could pose as a liberator of the Vietnamese, even while it destroyed their homes and their way of life. King likened American policies—its use of hi-tech weapons of mass destruction and “fortified hamlet” policy—to the Nazis’ testing of weapons on prisoners and concentration camps. The US had destroyed the most cherished institutions in Vietnamese society—the family and the village.

It had allied itself with a corrupt, exploitative regime and collaborated in its attacks on the Buddhist faith, which King characterized as Vietnam’s “only non-Communist revolutionary political force.” It was breeding bitterness and generations who saw America as the enemy. To use language of our own time: they were being “radicalised.” The Viet-cong’s atrocities were dwarfed by America’s “computerized plans of destruction.”

King’s nation sent white and black working class soldiers to die together in the jungles of South East Asia even though they could hardly live on the same block in Chicago or attend the same school; it commended him for preaching non-violence at home while it resorted to violence as an instrument of policy both at home and abroad; and it was willing to spend millions on bombs to kill, but reluctant to spend dollars on the needs of the poor.

The War on Poverty announced by President Johnson in 1964 had been for King a shining moment of real promise, but the escalation in Vietnam had destroyed that hope, leading King to conclude that “America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of the poor as long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.” The bombs dropped in Vietnam, King mused, exploded at home in urban disorder. Before an audience of clergymen already opposed to the war, King’s call for an immediate ceasefire and negotiated settlement found favour inside the church but provoked outrage beyond its walls.

King had always faced the reality that other African American leaders saw him as a rival as well as an ally. Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Whitney Young of the National Urban League, both keen to demonstrate loyalty to President Lyndon Johnson who had afforded them unprecedented access to the White House, immediately distanced themselves from King’s remarks. The only other African American Nobel Peace Laureate at the time, former UN diplomat Ralph Bunche warned that trying to merge the peace and civil rights movements as King was doing was a serious mistake.

In the widely read pages of the Reader’s Digest, black journalist Carl Rowan lamented that Communist influence and hubris had prompted King to act in a way that “alienated many of the Negro’s friends and armed the Negro’s foes.” Rowan’s charge echoed the line taken in the mainstream press with both the New York Times and Washington Post chiding King for damaging his own cause. This negative reaction may explain why “Beyond Vietnam” has been eclipsed by the “I Have a Dream” speech in King commemorations, although most would concede that the latter not only secured a more positive reaction but was artistically more adept. Nevertheless, “Beyond Vietnam” was arguably more indicative of King himself and remains more instructive.

Fifty years later, King’s words bear consideration. The Cold War that dominated his own time may have ended, but we still live in a world of militarism, materialism, and racism; a world in which the terror the West inflicts abroad and the exclusion it accomodates at home can explode on its own streets. When Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he felt compelled to address the contrast between himself and King who had used his own Nobel lecture to urge nonviolence. Essentially, he saw the two as separated by their roles: King was a Christian minister with a universal mission, while Obama was America’s commander in chief. While Trump may fuel our nostalgia for Obama’s presidency, its record was mixed with many concluding that while Obana resisted calls for intervention, he did not substantively reduce the US use of military force as a primary instrument of foreign policy, fighting proxy wars around the world and gearing up for fresh confrontations in the Pacific.

In “Beyond Vietnam,” King spoke expansively of the need for America to move 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,” he warned, “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Racism, he declared, stemmed from this same tendency to devalue people; a denial of the personhood of those different to ourselves.

Fifty years on, a glance at Brexit Britain or Trump’s America gives any thinking person pause. The priority given to machines and computers, profit motives and property rights suggests that our orientation remain unchanged at best.

When the Trump administration makes non-use of the term “climate change” a protocol of White House policy discussions, when the Congress fails to pass health care reform as much because it leaves too many health needs covered as too few, or when the answer to Mexican immigration is a wall, then we still need to heed King’s warning that we should value people over things. We should recall his words: “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’” When hate crimes soar and individuals find meaning more in their ability to inflict death, and strike terror, or gain celebrity, we have not heard King’s words clearly enough. The West still uses words of liberation alongside drones of destruction and demonstrates again and again that some lives— mostly non-white lives—don’t seem to matter.

For these reasons, April 4 is the real King Day, when the man King most wanted to be can be remembered.

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