Edited by Greg Massey
Today, April 4, 2018, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Exactly one year before his death, King spoke at the Riverside Church in New York City. On that day, he made his first public attack on the war in Vietnam, giving perhaps the greatest speech of his life.
A half century later, King’s denunciation of American militarism and his plea for global peace is more relevant than ever. In 1967, the United States was fighting in Vietnam. Today the United States is bombing seven different countries. In the past two weeks, the possibility of the United States pursuing war over diplomacy in Iran and North Korea has increased.
King ended his speech with the words of the prophet Amos. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, King delivered a message that did not change the behavior of the people to whom it was directed.
Below are excerpts from King’s speech. If his references to Vietnam and communism were replaced with contemporary phrasing, the speech could be presented almost verbatim today. In excerpting the speech, I have chosen sections that most resonate with our time, using the ellipsis only when there are breaks within paragraphs. The full text of the speech is here. An audio version is accessible here.
Excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City
A true revolution of values will lay hand 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.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
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’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am 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 every one 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.” 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. . . .
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. . . . The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.