MLK Speech On Vietnam Gripped Washington

In the final installment of the series Tell Me More About Black History, writer Kai Wright revisits a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., titled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence." Wright tells how the revolutionary speech triggered strong reactions in Washington.

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KORVA COLEMAN, host:

It's Black History Month. We've been celebrating people and events that have played key roles in this country's history with our series, Tell Me More about Black History. Editor and writer Kai Wright has been telling us some timely stories, and today, we offer our final installment. Martin Luther King Jr. gave memorable speeches throughout his life. On April 4, 1967, he delivered a speech called "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence." Although the speech is one of King's lesser-known nowadays, it was considered revolutionary for its time. Tell me more about black history, Kai.

(Soundbite of music)

KAI WRIGHT: It's really been wonderful talking to your audience about the black history and bringing some of the first-person voices into the conversation. Today, we jump ahead to the man who often headlines Black History Month: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We often hear about King's dream. Sometimes if we want to hear something edgy, we turned to his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." But one of the tragedies, I think, of our understanding of Martin Luther King today is how much we've forgotten just how much of a radical presence he was on the American scene during his time. One of his biggest challenges was that he said that we don't have to wait for the oppressors to set the timetable for liberation; that's something that we decide. And that was the way he pushed back against people that constantly said, you're asking for too much, too fast. And that was a terribly radical idea.

Similarly, I want to introduce our listeners to a speech that often gets lost in our understanding of King, and that's when he came around to speak out on the Vietnam War. He was ahead of many civil-rights leaders at the time, and indeed, he caught great deals of flack for it. President Lyndon Johnson was angry at him for it; his white allies were angry at him for it; civil-rights leaders were angry at him for it. But he said that after months and months of back and forth with his advisers that he can longer, quote, "divide my conscience." And as he says in the speech, a time comes when silence is betrayal. The section that I'd like your listeners to hear is one where he says, my opposition to the war is about something more than just Vietnam.

(Soundbite of speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence," April 4, 1967)

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Leader): But I wish to go on now and to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality...

(Soundbite of applause)

Rev. KING: And if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing clergy and laymen concern committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru; they will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia; they will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.

(Soundbite of applause)

WRIGHT: He gives a long and detailed speech, as many of his speeches were, where he goes in to great deals of foreign impressions, about foreign policy. But he comes around and says there's something bigger here; there's something about America's need for what he calls a radical revolution of values, and he offers this passage.

(Soundbite of speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence," April 4, 1967)

Rev. KING: I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...

(Soundbite of applause)

Rev. KING: We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society, when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

WRIGHT: That's the kind of message that is deeply resonant today, still, when we're talking about not just America's presence on the world stage militarily, but our presence on the world stage culturally and the way we order our society today. It's so prophetic and offers so many lessons for listeners and for politicians as we move in to 2009 in this current era. It's a shame that that kind of thing gets lost in our history of King, and so, I thank you for letting me bring that to your audience.

(Soundbite of music)

COLEMAN: Kai Wright is editor of "The African-American Experience: Black History and Culture through Speeches, Letters, Editorials, Poems, Song and Stories." He joined us from studios in New York. To hear earlier stories in our Tell Me More about Black History series, please go to our Web site, the Tell Me More page of npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

COLEMAN: Coming up, Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal gave the Republican response to President Obama's first joint-session address to Congress this week, but did his speech hit the mark? Or did it miss the point?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: If President Obama's speech was a homerun, touchdown or a three-pointer, Jindal's was a squeeze bunt, incomplete pass and three seconds in the lane.

COLEMAN: The Barbershop Guys are next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Korva Coleman.

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