by Robert C. Koehler
I decided to honor Martin Luther King Day this year by reading — and trying to absorb, more fully than ever before — the entirety (nearly 7,000 words) of the iconic speech he gave at Riverside Church a year to the day before his assassination.
The speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” is remembered and celebrated (or not) as MLK’s official condemnation of LBJ’s war, inappropriately “mixing peace and civil rights” and shattering ties with the country’s pro-war liberals. My takeaway after reading it: The speech is a lot more than that.
Not only is it a detailed analysis of the politics of colonialism and the cruel absurdity of war, but it’s a deep plunge into the human future, pulsating with complex sanity and more relevant than ever 50-plus years later — so relevant I could scream. For instance:
“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
“I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”
Imagine if mainstream media coverage of a looming confrontation, with, oh, Russia, let us say, or China, included awareness that we are all citizens not simply of a bordered country but the whole planet, or that the first step to take in dealing with an “enemy” is listening to that enemy, understanding his or her point of view and, in the process, reassessing our awareness of ourselves. What if this, rather than clueless (but heavily armed) confrontation were the geopolitical norm?
“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.”
Uh . . . are you listening, President Johnson? Nixon? Ford? Carter? Reagan? Bush the Elder? Clinton? Bush the Younger? Obama? Trump? Biden?
Loyalty to mankind as a whole? Almost 55 years later, this still seems preposterously idealistic, at least from the conventional — a.k.a., Know Nothing — point of view. Why? Nothing that has happened in the half century since King’s death has done anything but confirm the wisdom of his words. As Desmond Tutu, who passed away last month, put it: “. . . my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong to the whole, to the community, to the tribe, to the nation, to the earth.”
Why is this too much to grasp — socially, politically, militarily? Why are we still caught up geopolitically in an I-win-you-lose mentality after 20 years and counting of endless war that cost a few trillion bucks, killed and displaced millions of people and accomplished virtually nothing, even from a limited political point of view? America’s door of conventional understanding still has refused to let in the wisdom of King and Tutu . . . the wisdom, indeed, of indigenous awareness, as summed up in the tribal South African word “ubuntu,” one possible translation of which is: “I am because you are.”
My God, what if this is true? It shatters our hyper-individualism and creates endless inconvenience for the military-industrial complex. It interrupts the easy creation of enemies. To acknowledge this word, one cannot dehumanize another person, let alone a whole nation.
In his speech, King quotes a Vietnamese Buddhist leader: “It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat.”
This may be the ultimate takeaway. The United States of America is a nation dying of self-inflicted wounds. Now is the time to step beyond the cruel stupidity of militarism. It was also the time to do so on April 4, 1967, the day of King’s speech. But despite the emergence of an unprecedented antiwar movement, and despite the fact that the U.S. was forced to flee Vietnam eight years later, the military-industrialists managed to stay in control of both the national budget and the mainstream consciousness. Wage war, go shopping!
Far more serious to the military than its defeat in Vietnam was the end of the Cold War, which many Americans assumed would mean a steep decline in the military budget and an increase in spending on social needs and such. To the militarists, this was known as “Vietnam syndrome” — the sudden national disgust for war. It took a few decades to fully transcend Vietnam syndrome and required, among other things, the elimination of the draft, so that most of the public (those not subject to the poverty draft) had nothing on the line, such as their lives, when war was finally declared again. And the plan worked! We substituted terrorists for communists and eventually got the war machine up and running. Our new enemy was evil itself.
The only problem was our national hubris and deep psychological defeat, which we succeeded only in aggravating, making the words of MLK even more relevant than they were in 1967:
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. . . . 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.”