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Where Do We Stand Today? 50 Years After MLK’s Riverside Speech

Fifty years ago today, on April 4, 1967, a reluctant Martin Luther King stood in Riverside Church in New York. His voice was somber, the mood serious. He proceeded to make his most controversial speech. This speech, “Beyond Vietnam” is one of the boldest, most revolutionary speeches in the history of America. Even as almost everything about Dr. King approaches iconic status, this speech of his remains little known. When I travel around the country giving talks on Dr. King, almost 100% of audiences know something about the “I Have a Dream Speech.” Less than 2% know about Riverside. This is not an accident.

There is no mention of Riverside — or King’s opposition to the Vietnam War — in the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights. The Memphis National Civil Rights Museum contains only a small reference to King’s Riverside speech. If today’s heirs to King ignore this majestic speech, it was surely not ignored by King’s contemporaries. King delivered this speech on April 4, 1967. It was a year to the date, on April 4th, 1968, that King was shot on and killed in the Blues City, Memphis, on the balcony of room 306 Lorraine Motel. There is little doubt that Riverside Church led to Martin’s assassination.

What was so controversial about what King had said?

Pushed for years by younger, more radical members of the civil rights movement, and in particular the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), King was convicted in his conscience to connect the struggle against racism at home to standing up against warmongering and militarism overseas, especially in Vietnam. In fact, it was none other than the SNCC member Uncle Vincent Harding who wrote the primary draft of the Riverside church talk for Brother Martin.

Martin started out by saying:

“I come to this great magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”

Riverside was a matter of conscience. Time and again King stated that:

“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war.”

King knew that confronting the government, especially at time of war, was no easy task. But walking in the footsteps of the Biblical prophetic tradition, King had no choice. Silence was no option: “We must speak.”

“We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”

For King, this was a time to go beyond “smooth patriotism” and engage in serious truth telling, in a “firm dissent” that was rooted in both conscience and in an open-eyed “reading of history.” How revolutionary to read these words in our own age of so-called alternate facts.

King knew full well that what he was doing was controversial. And he recognized that the speaking out against the Vietnam war — a stance usually associated with socialists and communists — was a costly and controversial one. He specifically addressed this mandate of conscience to speak, though it be costly.

“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 the 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.”

For King, it was the same spirit of standing up for justice that had led him to organize the Montgomery Improvement Association that now led him to stand up against Vietnam:

“In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.”

King positioned his talk as a plea not to Vietnam, but to his fellow Americans. This was about the innocent lives in Vietnam, but it was also about saving the American experiment.

He was always a preacher, in the business of saving souls, and on this night he was still in the business of saving souls. In Riverside King was still looking to save the soul of America. He stated that the soul of America was sick, was sin-sick. He famously said that a nation that spent more on its military than it did on programs of social uplift was approaching spiritual death. In Riverside, King said that if America’s soul should die, the autopsy’s results would say “war.” War killed the soul of America.

King now squarely set his sights on war, which he called the “enemy of the poor.” He knew that unless we got it right, we would be marching against this war and the next war and the war after that.

In the most controversial line of the whole speech, King rightly recognized that it was the American government that was inflicting state-sanctioned violence on largely poor and defenseless people in Vietnam:

“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 greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” These words would echo through our political discourse, in 1967 and again in 2017. What to do but to remember the report of the Lancet stating that the American occupations of Iraq alone have resulted in more than half a million dead, largely poor and defenseless people.

This Martin still spoke as a minister, one who knew that the God of the whole cosmos is also the God of the Vietnamese, the God of the poor and the dispossessed. And that in his own Christian language, the same Jesus had been sent for both America and Vietnam. If we are wrong on Vietnam, if we are wrong on Iraq and Afghanistan, we are not merely wrong on politics, we are wrong on God. This was a calling that had been with King ever since Montgomery. All the way in that December back in 1955, King had said:

“And we are not wrong, we are not wrong in what we are doing.
If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.
If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong.
If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.”

This King realized that America was not merely a dream. By 1967, King knew that America was both a dream and a nightmare. Citing Langston Hughes, King stated:

“O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”

For King, this was not merely about Vietnam. It was about America, and what was left of the American dream. It was about empire, colonialism, and militarism: “Our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution.” For King, it was not merely a matter of policy. It was a matter of inner transformation:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Being a preacher who loves lists, King talked about a triple giant of evil that was plaguing the soul of America: racism, materialism, and militarism. It was this war, Martin said, that was sucking men and resources “like a demonic suction tube” out of our inner cities. Martin knew that as long as we were entangled in this dance of war, we would never dedicate the resources to fight racism and poverty in our inner cities.

As he had said ever since the eulogy for the girls in 16th Street Baptist Church, King directed his attention to the issues of systems and structures. It was the very “edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” America needed both a radical revolution of values, and a transformation of our structures. No, the prophetic tradition was not about making America great again. It was about making America righteous, kind, compassionate, and just.

That’s the thing about the prophets. They do not come to make Rome great again, or to make Persia great again. The prophets come to make us right with God, and right with God’s children.

The prophets come to make us great, but only if greatness is measured by the way that those on the margins fare in our societies. You measure the greatness of any society by looking at how the poor, the needy, the orphans, the widows fare, not by the size of our economy or our military.

No prophet has ever come to make an Empire great again. This was king at his prophetic best, infusing love and justice into the American experiment.

This was King at his most ecumenical: he now spoke about a “Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist” reality. This King talked about the urgency of acting now, for tomorrow was today. “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.” The King was not moving towards the crescendo of the “I have a dream speech”, but rather one who urgently was pushing his America, and the human community, to choose peace and justice over warmongering.

How was Martin’s Riverside talk received? King was disowned, cast out, and critiqued, The FBI called him the most dangerous man in America. Life magazine was equally harsh, describing his talk as “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post concurred, stating that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.” The New York Times published an op-ed (“Dr. King’s Error”) which critiqued his stance against the Vietnam war:

“This is a fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together, Dr. King has done a disservice to both.”

Most black leaders parted ways with King, including the celebrated Jackie Robinson. The NAACP stood against Dr. King:

“Civil rights battles will have to be fought and won on their own merits, irrespective of the state of war or peace in the world. We are not a peace organization nor a foreign policy association. We are a civil rights organization.” New York Times, April 11th

King remained undeterred, stating:

“I have worked too long now, and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.”

So where do we stand today, 50 years after Riverside?

Reverend Barber and other preachers who follow in the footsteps of Dr. King have talked about reviving the Poor People’s Campaign. Today in Riverside, on the 50th anniversary of King’s speech, there will be a conversation shared between Michelle Alexander and Ruby Sales. How appropriate that Michelle Alexander leads this conversation, as she has been such a prophetic voice for racial justice and talking about the New Jim Crow.

Where do we stand? Are we ready to save the soul of America? Are we ready to confront the triple giant of racism, materialism, and militarism?

How do we walk in Martin’s Riverside footsteps, at a time that we see an ever-rising wave of anti-black racism, anti-immigrant hysteria, and anti-Muslim bigotry?

What do we have to say about an America in which 20% of our children go to bed hungry at night? How do we become, as Martin said, a person-centered society, not a thing-centered society?

And what is happening to the soul of an America which is talking about cancelling Meals on Wheels, programs for the environment, and federal support for the arts, but increases an already bloated military budget by some 54 billion dollars?

Looking at what is happening to America today, and the powers on the throne, we can do no better than end with Martin’s own words:

“Though her portions 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.”

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