Revisiting the Rev. King’s Call to Action in His “Beyond Vietnam” Speech
In the 45 years since his assassination, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been written about and memorialized in the United States in our calendar and in stone. It is easy to view the man simply as an icon whose face is now used to sell merchandise or as a venerable leader whose work is relegated to history. But reflecting on passages from his “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” speech—delivered at Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967—reveals King’s words as enduringly prophetic and persistent.
“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed . . . without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
King’s sentiments here boldly reflect a truth we may find difficult to swallow: Violence is at the heart of America’s founding and evolution. From slavery to mass incarceration to the production and sale of the most arms of any nation in the world, our society has used violence as a primary means through which to solve its problems. To cope with this ongoing legacy of violence in our midst, Methodist discipline requires that we uphold the following core principles: “[H]uman values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; militarization of society must be challenged and stopped and the manufacture, sale and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled and the production, possession or use of nuclear weapons be condemned” (The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 140). The Newtown, Connecticut, shooting, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and countless other acts of violence must give us renewed commitment to continually reckon with our violent past and present as a step toward achieving a more just world.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see an edifice which produced beggars needs restructuring.”
Reckoning with the role that violence plays in American life must begin with a broad definition of violence and peace. Here King calls us to think of violence as an inability to meet all people’s needs. With a global economic crisis, real wages at historic lows, millions in foreclosure and vast numbers of human beings living on less than one dollar a day, the violence of poverty is all around us. Within The Book of Resolutions, 2012, achieving peace is defined as more than just an absence of violence: “[T]he church is called to look beyond human boundaries of nation, race, class, sex, political ideology, or economic theory and to proclaim the demands of social righteousness essential to peace” (p. 843). King pushes us further by demanding that we respond to the violence of injustice with more than charity: by actually working to topple the systems that reinforce oppression.
“Every man of humane conviction must decide on what protest best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
The call is clear: we must actively seek to end injustice. The Book of Resolutions, 2012, echoes this call: “The church should continually be a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust” (p. 618). We live in challenging times where the gains of past social justice struggles are under constant attack. From the undermining of unions across the country to the scaling back of reproductive rights to the defunding of public schools, our work for justice is as necessary as ever. King ends with an urgent plea: Although fighting for justice is never easy, “let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”
Janis Rosheuvel is the executive of racial justice for United Methodist Women.