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The Global Reach of Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech

The views of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were transformed in the 1960’s by their heightened awareness of the global context of the African American struggle in the U.S.  The Autobiography of Malcolm X describes the dramatic impact on the American Muslim leader’s 1964 sacred pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and also visiting Egypt on the trip.  His travels taught him that the revolution for black freedom and equality in his country was bound up with the movement of oppressed peoples around the world.  This enlargement of his historic role also took shape in the vision and leadership of Dr. King.

In celebrating King’s legacy on the now federal holiday, the Baptist preacher’s emphasis on global solidarity of the poor from 1965 until his death in ’68 is often ignored.  His call for a “revolution of values” is a call for the nation to move from a “thing oriented” system to a “people oriented” system in its international policies.  This would mean, he made clear, that the shift would demand giving priority concern to the effect on the poor worldwide of our policies and not only on those of our nation.  “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

The speech, delivered in Riverside Church, New York City, one year to the day before his assassination proclaims that the injustice done to anyone in the country is linked to the injustice perpetrated beyond our borders.  The title of the speech “Beyond Vietnam”, we need to remember, is a warning that should the nation fail to recognize the humanity of the Vietnamese people and withdraw our armed forces, we will be fighting next in Venezuela, Peru or El Salvador.  The 37 million people displaced by the U.S. led “War on Terror” since 2001 testify to our nation’s failure to learn the lessons of the Vietnam debacle and take King’s prophetic message to heart.

Although the criticism of the nation’s leading media sources, i.e. the New York Times and Washington Post, focused on King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, the critique of U.S. policies and presence in the world went much deeper and farther.  It is a speech not just about the U.S. war on Vietnam.  It is a speech about the U.S. defense of an unjust global system.  It is a speech with a global reach.  It is  not just a speech for the Vietnam era.  It is a speech for us today and for the future of humankind.  Here below is the conclusion of the speech:

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means, in the final analysis, that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft-misunderstood, this oft-misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.

When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response, I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I’m speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

April 4, 1967 Rev. King at Riverside Church New York City Speaking at the Event Sponsored by Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says, ‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word,’.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam writes, “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

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For an audio recording and the text of the speech go to: