What I want America to realize today is how the promise of our future is being destroyed as the legacy of Martin Luther King’s thinking and life is being expunged from our history. MLK’s teachings enraged those who have reason to hate truth, so they were not satisfied with his death. They sought the death of his thinking too.
In a 1965 sermon, King explained that the “majestic words” of the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson, that “all men are created equal,” were the cornerstone of the civil rights movement.
On April 4, 1967, he delivered a speech in Riverside Church in Manhattan of a kind never heard before from any American political leader. It was addressed to the American people, not the government. It called upon us to open our eyes and our minds to evils inherent in the American capitalist hegemonic system. He denounced the United States government, stating “…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: my own government.” He had a radical democratic vision committed to trying “to make America what it ought to be.” (Final Speech, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968) That speech is, Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence, and you can read it here: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam.
Time magazine later called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post called it “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy” declaring that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.” The New York Times wrote an editorial entitled “Dr. King’s Error”, and even the NAACP objected to it.
I’ve always seen the speech as the finest political speech in America since the Gettysburg Address. In its political acumen, it was in keeping with Karl Marx’s, “But if the designing of the future and the proclamation of ready-made solutions for all time is not our affair, then we realize all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present—I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be.” (1844) King read a bit of Marx and Gandhi at Boston University while studying for his Ph.D. He was devoted to nonviolence, but he saw all the violence we were perpetrating throughout the world.
He began that speech in Riverside Church with the words, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” In it, he called out the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism”, asserting that, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” This must now be seen as judgment of our foreign policy and a plea for social justice. He traced America’s involvement in Southeast Asia since 1945, history about which Americans knew little, and decried the Vietnam War’s (aptly known in Vietnam as the American War) effect on the people of Southeast Asia as well as on our own soldiers, “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,” war that corrupted our nation.
Since his assassination, his vision of social justice has been replaced in the media by the 1963 I Have A Dream speech in which he expressed a vision for a world where content of character matters more than skin color. But he devoted the final 18 months of his life to making his greater message explicit, one that promoted the solidarity of all mankind. Fifty-four years have passed now since he delivered that visionary speech at Riverside Church. Will the nation let another year pass without acknowledging his true legacy, his best thinking? Will we fail to see how only the principal victims of our militarism have changed, Afghanistan and Iraq now, Vietnam then? He said then that “the world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve,” and fifty-four years later it still does. In reminding us of what most matters, he was trying to save our soul, but our redemption will now require the admission of our mistakes and our responsibility for them.
Our nation is caught up in a maelstrom of polarized conflict over issues in racial justice and Dr. King surely devoted his life to that. But he did so much more than that. In this era of the commodification of protest, I think it is our responsibility to ensure that his being made a saint of civil rights doesn’t obscure his devotion to America and to human rights. Let his true epitaph be known.
This year, we celebrated the 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, passed by Congress in 1994. Like Socrates, King’s life was devoted to teaching the citizenry to think clearly, especially about the democracy that was first established in Socrates’s Athens and was at risk here on January 6th. King knew that democracy dies in darkness, so he shone great light wherever greed, prejudice, inequality and hypocrisy were to be found. I don’t know of a better epitaph for King’s life than to celebrate how he taught us all to be the kind of citizens a democracy needs to flourish, and a world needs to survive.
After his death, it took Congress 15 years just to establish MLK Day in 1983. Sen. Jesse Helms criticized his opposition to the Vietnam War and accused him of espousing “action-oriented Marxism.” I’ve not heard a greater tribute to King than that.
Let us recall one of the best-known messages he left us: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We must no longer allow his greatest message to be silenced in our media, one that insisted that all lives matter.