Joe Gannon: Dr. King’s fatally radical vision about Vietnam
NORTHAMPTON — This past week Americans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. It was at that march that he gave his “I have a dream speech,” which put him in the history books.
But it was not that speech which got him killed. The speech which most likely did get him assassinated was his “Why I oppose the war in Vietnam” address, delivered April 4, 1967.
In that far less remembered speech, he laid down his mandate as a civil rights leader, and picked up the mantle of a true revolutionary. In that speech he made it clear that his goal was not for Rosa Parks to sit wherever she wanted, but to dismantle foundations on which America stood.
He spoke of the “triple evil ... of racism, economic exploitation and militarism.”
Since his death, America sadly has embraced the sanitized King of the 1963 March on Washington, the pastor who wanted nothing more than for “little black boys and girls to join hands with little white boys and girls” in a rainbow version of America. But by 1967 King had come to realize how meager that vision was, and found himself compelled against all advice to issue his unequivocal call for a “radical revolution in values.”
The squandering of resources in Vietnam, and an unconditional surrender in the War on Poverty here at home, made King declare America a “society gone mad on war.”
Standing at the pulpit, King declared the United States “the single greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He told a country convinced of its moral superiority that it acted like “a policeman of the whole world.” He had the outraged courage to warn that he heard “God telling America ‘You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways I will rise up and break the backbone of your power and place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know My name!’”
In that speech, King declared his “eternal hostility to militarism” and issued a veiled call to draft resistance when by telling young men to “take a stand” against the war.
All this came not because we were losing in Vietnam; not because we were wrongly involved in someone else’s civil war; not because it was too expensive or making America less safe. No, King’s opposition to the war came from his conviction that it was immoral.
Touchingly, King made it clear his condemnation came from a place of love. “I love America ... There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love.” Above all what he wanted was for America “to come home” to its founding ideal that all people are created equal. “Come home America,” he said.
And that love of country pushed him further. Years after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts became law, King was not satisfied and declared his intention to escalate his struggle to include the “glaring contrast of poverty and wealth” in the richest nation on earth. He called out multinational corporations that not only exploited Third World nations, but “profited” from the Vietnam War and so opposed its speedy end.
I believe it was not just the message that got King killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, but the medium.
Visit YouTube and listen through 22 minutes and 48 seconds of spine-tingling oratory. You will understand that someone listening in real time — whether James Earl Ray, J. Edgar Hoover or John Q. Public — shuddered, and decided that King must die.
But King lives. Not in our official, non-threatening “remembrances” of him over a three-day weekend in January, but in our current national malaise.
True prophet that he was, King foretold of this malaise in 1967 when he warned that “a nation which spends more money on military defense than programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
As America had done exactly that for the last 46 years, that spiritual death is upon us. Ringing the bell for the 50th anniversary of his “dream” does little to change the fact that he lived just long enough to see his own dream in tatters.
Joe Gannon, a writer and teacher, lives in Northampton.