What Martin Luther King's 1967 Speech Can Teach Us About the Relationship Between Race and Class Today
Fifty years ago the times were tumultuous, as they are now. Activists were fragmented by gender, race, tactics and issue silos then too. The machinery of surveillance and repression by local, state and federal government was intense and about to become more so.
Despite knowing the risk of speaking out, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stepped forward to offer clarity and direction. His speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence was delivered on April 4, 1967, to an overflow crowd at Riverside Church in New York City.
Now the speech is receiving new attention, not for reasons of wistful nostalgia but as a vision even more relevant to our times than it was then. To learn more about events already organized to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “A Time to Break Silence” speech or how to help initiate one yourself, go here.
In his speech, Dr. King identified the triplets of racism, militarism and materialism as the legacy we must overcome. Why triplets? Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a peace movement veteran, explains: “Why did Dr. King use the word ‘triplets’ when ‘three’ or ‘triad’ would have been enough? Perhaps because biological triplets share a great deal of their DNA. What DNA do these triplets share? The DNA of subjugation, of top-down power.”
To be clear, Dr. King’s remarks did not incorporate the possibility of ecocatastrophe or the structures of patriarchy and sexism into his analysis and call. Can there be any doubt that today he would?
What’s more important is that we desperately need Dr. King’s coherent and comprehensive explanation of the system that we seek to change. That system is designed to frustrate and confuse us. It sorts us into categories so that some focus on immigration, some on tax policy, some on opposing war, some on gun control, some on the status of women, some on the environment, some on mass incarceration, some on labor issues. And so on. It’s as though some hidden overseer was demanding that whatever you do, don’t you dare see the forest. Just look at the trees. Or else.
The reaction to Dr. King’s 1967 speech proves the point. “Dr. King’s Error” was the headline on the New York Times editorial of April 7, 1967. Its concluding sentence read, “There are no simple answers to the war in Vietnam or to racial justice in this country. Linking these hard complex problems will lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion.”
The Washington Post piled on too. As Tavis Smiley reports in his excellent book, Death of a King, the Post said: "[King] has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies. ... and an even graver injury to himself. Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause to his country and to his people." Even other civil right leaders including Bayard Rustin and Whitney Young opposed King’s systemic analysis.
One year to the day after giving the speech, Dr. King was assassinated.
Of all the points made in Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence, the notion of a radical revolution in values is the most enlightening. Why? For 400 years the see-saw political debate between what are now called “liberals and conservatives” (those terms are relatively modern) has been essentially the same.
The argument has two moving parts: Should the violently established white male private property power system on which the nation is based be moderated? If so, in what way?
Over time white male property power has been mitigated. In most cases, blood was shed in the process, our delusional belief in “peaceful transitions of power,” notwithstanding. What we call the Revolutionary War, which overthrew control by British white male property power in favor of local control was neither the first nor the last violent struggle. The viciousness of slavery and the slaughter of Indians created the military basis for the Revolutionary War in the first place.
Later, the war that ended chattel slavery and the counter revolution that followed generated enormous death, injury and destruction.
Some change has been more peaceful. Although the struggle was long and difficult, women gained the right to vote without loss of life, perhaps because women’s suffrage was seen as less threatening. For a brief time the union movement was able to offset some of the power of rapidly evolving corporate juggernauts with minimal violence.
More recently however, despite its dedication to nonviolence, the 1960s movement that overthrew the Jim Crow system was met with the assassination of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Viola Liuzzo, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, four little girls in a Birmingham, Alabama, church and many others. Peaceful demonstrators were routinely attacked with dogs, fire hoses, ax handles and other weapons.
Each diminution of white male private property power was met with ferocious resistance and backlash. By way of just one current example, the value of the vote for all citizens is under assault from many fronts including but not limited to gerrymandering, money in politics, mass incarceration, emergency management of local governments and voter suppression. Voting rights for African Americans are especially insecure.
This tendency of white male power to roar back like a cancer out of remission is a defining characteristic of U.S. history. Political parties come and go. But the underlying dynamic remains the same. As if to celebrate the continuity of the power class, one of President Trump’s first acts was to install in the Oval office a portrait of one of the most racist, bloodthirsty and sexist presidents of all time—Democratic Party icon Andrew Jackson.
“This is not who we are,” say those who deplore assaults and bigotry toward women, African Americans, immigrants or Muslims. But what if it IS who we are? What if we were able to admit to ourselves that fairness, equality and peace are the deviation, not the other way around.
What if we deeply understood the presidency of Donald Trump as a symptom, not the disease itself.
Dr. King’s speech, to which the late Dr. Vincent Harding was a major contributor, is a beacon drawing us to be honest with ourselves.
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men [in Northern ghettoes] I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked—and rightly so—what about Vietnam. They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about changes it wanted. Their questions hit home and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettoes without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.
What if, as Dr. King preached, the values are themselves the problem? What if the core American value is hypocrisy? Did not the Founding Fathers proclaim in 1776 that all men are created equal while simultaneously creating the very first apartheid state in which only white male property owners had citizenship rights and some humans were bought, sold and brutally abused by the millions?
In 2017, when slavery is compared to immigration or the founding of historically Black colleges to schools of “choice,” it is tempting to cringe or laugh. Or both. But something far deeper is going on here. We are not just a divided nation. Our individual minds are often confused and divided as well.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring.
To revisit Dr. King’s speech is to open the possibility of more productive kind of conversation about our nation and the world in which find ourselves now.
Across the nation people are coming together in schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, community centers, and living rooms to read and reflect on Dr. King’s speech and how we can use it to build today’s movement. If there is no event near where you are, you can read Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence here or organize one.
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. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
To learn more information about the events already organized or how to initiate one yourself, go here: