The 50th Anniversary of MLK’s Most Controversial Speech

March 30, 2017


Monument or Man?

Everybody loves Martin Luther King, Jr., today. He’s a secular saint. He’s a holiday. He is granite—a (somewhat controversial) monument tourists visit in the heart of Washington, DC.

He is commemorated. He is invoked.

It is safe today to love Martin Luther King, Jr. He was right, after all. He’s a hero: an American hero. As Americans, we can feel good about ourselves when we love him. We like feeling good about ourselves. It helps us forget what it was about America that needed—that still needs—a Martin Luther King, Jr., in the first place.


The King We Might Not Know

We remember his soaring voice, we remember the grainy black-and-white film reels, the clamoring crowds. His determined face, his smile. We remember that he was a civil rights activist and leader. That he led boycotts and marches.

But he never defined himself as narrowly as we define him today. He was also a grassroots organizer. A minister. He cared about economic policy, employment, wages, world affairs. He spoke out against poverty. He faced constant harassment from law enforcement, from the FBI (where he was labeled “the most dangerous Negro…in this nation”). His house was bombed. He was stabbed. He knew terror and experienced violence.

While he came to enjoy a great deal of popularity and influence and was able to win substantial victories that changed the course of American history, he also struggled with his conscience. For years he felt that the war in Vietnam was wrong, but he didn’t speak of it in public.

That changed on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Baptist Church in New York City, when he gave the most controversial speech of his life.


Beyond Vietnam

“I come to this great magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”

King knew that Beyond Vietnam would have repercussions. Some of his own advisors were against it and urged him to keep quiet.

But he also understood that, as a citizen and person of conscience, he could no longer stay silent. “We must speak,” he said, “with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”


Everything Is Connected

The backlash was immediate. 168 newspapers condemned the speech the very next day. Even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) came out against his stance. Eventually, polls showed that nearly 75% of Americans, and even 55% of African Americans, turned against him on the question of Vietnam. It destroyed his relationship with President Johnson. He felt increasingly isolated in the last year of his life.

What was everyone so upset about? It seems that America had decided what King was allowed to talk about and what he wasn’t. But he resisted being put in a box. He made the connection between war, civil rights, and poverty very clear:

  • War was “the enemy of the poor.” Money that might otherwise go to fight poverty, went instead to war efforts. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
  • He noted the huge numbers of poor black and brown men being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
  • Consumer society itself, our focus on purchases and profits above all else, had weakened us. He called for a “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”
  • He questioned how he could preach nonviolence when his own country “was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”


A Love for All Mankind

These critiques resonate today.

Climate change. War. The gap between rich and poor. Mass incarceration. It’s as true now, as it was 50 years ago, that people of color and low-income communities are hit hardest by all of these issues.

King was trying to make us see that we are all in this struggle together. He called for a worldwide fellowship “that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation.” He said it was time “for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.”


King’s Legacy

Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated a year to the day after his Beyond Vietnam speech, in Memphis, TN. Few remember that he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. King was on the side of those who sought justice, wherever and whoever they were. To him, the fight for civil rights did not, and could not, happen in isolation. To those in power, this had made him even more dangerous.

The current embrace of intersectionality tells us that King was simply way ahead of his time.

Leaders like Rev. Dr. William J. Barber make a point of addressing how the struggle for racial justice is connected to voting rights, LGBTQ equality, religious freedom, and other progressive policies. Cornell Brooks has made it clear that you cannot talk about climate justice or indigenous rights or workers rights if you do not also talk about civil rights.


“The Fierce Urgency of Now”

We live in an interconnected world. As we celebrate King for how he let his conscience guide him, despite fierce resistance, and celebrate him for his prescience in uniting multiple issues, we march on. We march, we protest, we resist with “the fierce urgency of now” he urged upon all of us, because as he said, there is such a thing as too late.

To be on the right side of history, and to be on time, you have to speak when your conscience compels you to speak. Let us rise today, then, and be guided by our collective conscience. “[L]et us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.“