I recently participated in a commemoration of Martin Luther King’s address “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence,” originally delivered on April 2, 1967, at New York City’s Riverside Church. King used the occasion to announce his opposition to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Although a long time coming in the eyes of some in the antiwar movement, his decision was one for which he was roundly criticized, even by supporters of the civil rights movement. He was straying out of his prescribed lane, they charged, and needed to get back where he belonged.
This year’s 55th-anniversary event, also held in Riverside Church’s magnificent sanctuary, featured inspiring Christian music and a thoughtful discussion of King’s remarks. Most powerful of all, however, was a public reading of the address itself. “Beyond Vietnam” contains many famously moving passages. King, for example, cited “the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools” and would not allow them to live “on the same block in Chicago.” And he reflected on the incongruity of young Black men being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
For me, at least, what that commemorative moment brought into sharp focus was his lacerating critique of American freedom. And there, to my mind, lies its lasting value.
Between theory and practice—between the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, on the one hand, and the pervasive presence of what King labeled the “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism on the other—there still looms, even in our own day, a massive gap. His address eloquently reflected on that gap, which, with the passage of time, has not appreciably narrowed.
Read the full article in The Nation.