As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent 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 the 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 ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent. – Martin Luther King Jr.
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City and delivered the single most powerful indictment of the Vietnam War by a leading voice of moral dissent in American society. Before a large gathering of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, surrounded by such heavyweights as Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel and Yale University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, King explained why it was time to break his silence on the war. Though he had become closely allied with President Lyndon Johnson, he acknowledged that “when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war.” Over the course of the next 45 minutes, he articulated his opposition to war in principle and to American involvement in Vietnam in particular, condemning in the strongest terms the policies of a Democratic president who had, just a few years earlier, helped King secure passage of the most significant civil rights and voting rights laws in American history.
King chose Riverside Church to demonstrate that the anti-war cause he embraced was not a subversive movement, but resulted from a life-long commitment to Christian principles. He had “come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” He anticipated, correctly as it turned out, that his statements would be criticized by many of his own supporters, including members of the black community who believed that King’s foray into the anti-war movement would dilute his efforts to secure civil, economic, and human rights for all Americans. He was “greatly saddened” by such criticism, however, “for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling.”
For King, there was nothing inconsistent in speaking out on behalf of the poor and opposing an unjust war. The build-up in Vietnam was diverting resources away from anti-poverty efforts at home and, because of draft exemptions that disproportionately benefited affluent whites, the poor increasingly were called to “fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population.”
We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with 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. . . .
King was first and foremost a preacher whose faith and calling exceeded national allegiances and compelled him to act within the meaning of his commitment “to the ministry of Jesus Christ.”
To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I’m speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men – for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?
King also had an abiding faith in American democracy and the principles upon which our nation was founded. Four years earlier, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., he spoke to the hopes and dreams of all American citizens that the nation would one day rise up and embrace the ideals of justice and equality for all. “I have a dream,” he said. In 1964, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, King understood that beyond the race problem in America was the problem of violence and “the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” By 1967, however, his movement for non-violent social change was under attack from some of the very people he was trying to help, from the growing militancy of urban blacks and the rise of the black power movement, to the competing visions of more radical and less conciliatory forces. Yet as a follower of Jesus and as a student of Ghandi, King never wavered in his commitment to non-violence, in his belief that love was more powerful than hate, that to break down the walls of oppression and injustice required an appeal to the hearts and souls of his fellow human beings.
From the pulpit at Riverside Church, King ached for the soul of America and believed it “incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war.” In a manner exceptional for an American social critic and prophet of his day, King’s voice of conscience crossed national boundaries. He reviewed the history of colonial repression in Vietnam and saw how western powers repeatedly sided with the forces of despotism and oppression in squelching the revolutionary forces of independence. Although in 1945 the Vietnamese people proclaimed independence from French and Japanese occupation, U.S. policy makers believed the people of Vietnam were not ready for independence, and for nine years “vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to re-colonize Vietnam.”
As a result, the peasants of Vietnam were denied a chance at real and meaningful land reform, something they genuinely needed, and instead were ruled by one of history’s most vicious modern dictators, Premier Diem. By the time King stood in the podium at Riverside Church, superior American air power and napalm had destroyed an ancient culture, its farms and forests; U.S. forces had killed over a million people, including tens of thousands of children. If King was to take his calling as a Christian pastor seriously, if he was to remain committed to his moral and ethical beliefs, he could not remain silent as the United States subjected a country the size of Italy to more than three times the tonnage of bombs dropped in all of World War II.
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. . . . We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.
As a pastor and as an American, King also was deeply concerned with what the war was doing to the American soldiers who had to fight it, for “what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.”
It was time, King said, for the madness to cease. In demanding an end to the war, he spoke in language consistent with his pastoral calling and which implicitly embraced the Christian concept of care for the “least of these” as expressed in Matthew 25:
I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. . . . I speak as one who loves America.
King encouraged churches and synagogues to protest the war and to take creative actions in opposition to it. He then looked beyond Vietnam and addressed the wrongs of war itself.
A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
King called for a unilateral cease-fire, an end to the bombing, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. Although in seven years, U.S. policy makers would accept the wisdom of King’s words, in April 1967, King was very much in the minority. President Johnson never forgave King for breaking ranks. A large segment of the civil rights movement deplored King’s violation of an unspoken contract. The mainstream press also turned on King. The New York Times called King’s sermon at Riverside Church “wasteful and self-defeating.” Life magazine said it was “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post suggested that King’s followers “would never again accord him the same confidence” and said he had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.”
King answered his critics during a television interview on July 28, 1967. When asked about the supposed contradiction between his efforts for civil rights and his statements against the war, King replied, “Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.”
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, one year to the day after his remarks at Riverside Church. We will never know how American history might have changed if the nation had followed King’s advice in 1967. Had America listened to King, thousands of young American boys would have come home and lived to work and love and raise families of their own; the people and environment of Vietnam would have been spared some of the worst destruction in the annals of warfare; and America would not have ended its involvement in Vietnam on the wrong side of history.
As I look back 43 years later, it is apparent that the moral courage of a Martin Luther King Jr. is exceedingly rare. His was a lonely courage. He spoke out against the war at a time when the majority of Americans remained in support of U.S. policy. He branched off when the civil rights movement was divided, when supporters of non-violence were dwindling, and when the easy thing to do would have been to remain silent. He publicly broke from a president who had risked his political support in the South to help the causes for which King had fought his entire adult life, and he rejected conformity to an anti-Communist dogma that had dominated American politics for a generation. He exercised a most difficult form of courage, risking everything for a cause greater than himself.
I recognize that Martin Luther King Jr. was not a saint. He was not perfect. Like all of us, he was a mortal human being with human flaws. No one understood this better than King. But today more than ever we need people with King’s exceptional courage and prophetic insight, his moral voice and passion for justice, his vision of peace and universal love. As a people, we are less complete in his absence.