October 14, 2002

Martin Luther King
Beyond Vietnam

Speech to Clergy and Laity Concerned
Riverside Church
New York City
April 4, 1967

"Beyond Vietnam" was Martin Luther King's formal public declaration of his active opposition to US military action in Vietnam. As a Christian minister, King was opposed to the war inherently. As a scholar and believer of Ghandi's principals of nonviolence, he opposed violence as a way to resolve conflict. But in this speech he took it farther. He solidified and codified his opposition to the war, bringing to bear all the powers of his tremendously organized mind, and the weight of his moral authority to state in unequivocal terms his absolute resolve to actively oppose US military involvement in Vietnam.

It was one year later on April 4, 1968 that he was shot on a balcony outside the Motel Lorraine in Memphis, Tennessee. Many say it was his opposition to the war that sealed his fate.

King was the target of a campaign by the FBI. It's hard to give a name to the agency's activities regarding Martin Luther King. (See The FBI and the Death of MLK) It was no mere investigation. He was bugged and wiretapped constantly by the FBI in his last years, but the harassment went much further, to include a twisted blackmail attempt. An FBI agent sent King a letter threatening to make public tapes of King in a hotel room with a woman that wasn't his wife if King did not commit suicide by a certain date.

Following are some excerpts from King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech, which are selected because of their relevance to today's situation after Congress signed a resolution giving Bush the power to leap into more imperial adventures overseas. The resolution was similar the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Johnson powers to wage war in Vietnam. It was an endeavor Johnson himself would live to regret.

Though the war and the domestic civil conflict rising from it would drive Johnson from office, it continued anew under Richard Nixon, who took office in 1969 on a campaign pledge to end the war, then continued it until 1975, seven years after King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech, six years after his death. Over 57,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam. Over 6 million Vietnamese were killed.

The speech is eerily prophetic.

For the entire text, go to Beyond Vietnam.

Martin Luther King:

They must see Americans as strange liberators...

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one "Vietcong"-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them -- mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read "Vietnam." It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing Clergy and Laymen Concerned committees- for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investment accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala, It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

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.

We are now faced with the fact 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 deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue 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. "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 callling 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.

As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion 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.

For a list of Internet resources on Martin Luther King, see The Chico High School Library
For information on the assassination of Martin Luther King, see Webcom.com
More on Martin Luther King:

  • mlkonline.com
  • MLK Bio on Stanford.edu
  • The Martin Luther King Assassination Conspiracy (at Ratical.org)
  • Parascope MLK Assassination Overview
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