Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2011: On War as an Enemy of the Poor

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr., I have decided to comment briefly on excerpts from his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.” King had recently joined voices with others in the community both religious and secular opposing the Vietnam War. The excerpts below are from his speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City, New York.  King begins by acknowledging that he can no longer remain silent about the Vietnam War but must criticize it openly, joining with like-minded voices in a common cause.

“Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but 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.”-

King calls for humility in recognition of our human condition; yet, he also calls for action, for a “firm dissent” grounded in convictions that will “move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism”—the latter of which we hear ad nauseam today.

King then turns to those questioning him for speaking against the war, those wondering why he has partnered with these dissenting voices and who worried that King’s critique of the war would hinder his efforts in the civil rights struggle for blacks in America.  Such people, King laments, have not understood him or his calling. Consequently, he mounts a case for his anti-war position, showing how it is perfectly consonant with his civil rights activism.  Although he enumerates seven reasons why he must oppose ethically the Vietnam War, I shall comment upon only the first three.  (I do recommend reading the entire speech, as it is packed with metaphors, images, moral interrogations, socio-political confrontations, and oratory delights that have come to bear a distinctively Martin Luther King Jr. mark).

First of all, King explains that the war functions to distract the nation and its leaders from concerns at home, especially concerns for the poor.

“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup 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. 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. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

There’s nothing new under the sun here, right? While our current unemployment rates skyrocket and our healthcare system self-destructs, we continue to spend millions upon millions on our present war and anti-terrorism efforts.  It is worth contemplating whether we’ve become a violent nation or whether, our wars both domestic and foreign have actually been the norm and times of peace the exception.

Next, King highlights the cruel irony and manipulation of the poor, particularly black males of the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum shipped thousands of miles away to risk their lives in a fight for “freedom” when their own freedom at home is denied.

“Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our 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. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

Third, King describes how his longtime commitment to non-violent protests as a means for social change and his growing anti-war convictions were brought together through interacting with oppressed youth in the Northern ghettos.

“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. 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. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

As King made clear on several occasions, his concerns were not only for black Americans but also included all people no matter what “race”, ethnicity, nationality, or political allegiance; his ultimate loyalty pressed him to move beyond nationalism by interrogating and deconstructing narratives co-opted for nationalistic aims in conflict with his faith.  As a Christian who also happened to be an American, King felt that he must address his own country’s soul, which he believed had become infused with bellicosity, warning that if her “soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’” I wonder how our nation’s medical report, if perchance we could get an accurate diagnosis, might read today.

As a follower of Christ, King was compelled to follow the way of peace and love, and to promote publicly the just treatment of all human beings.  He saw his Christian missive as transcending (yet not abandoning) “the calling of race or nation or creed” and sought every opportunity possible to speak for “suffering and helpless and outcast children.” For King this was both the “privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [and sisters].”

In light of the current trend to script enemy “others” (Muslims, immigrants, etc.), King’s words have much to say to us today.  As we celebrate Dr. King’s life and deeds, may we have ears to hear and hearts to receive his words of peaceful dissent so that we might translate them into action in our own spheres of influence.

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