Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence
Last week the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice sent out a newsletter informing people that today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Kairos Center is calling for a new Poor People’s Campaign in order to revitalize the movement started by Dr. King in 1968 in an effort to gain economic justice for poor people in the United States.
If you never heard the speech, or it’s been a while since you’ve listened to it, please take this opportunity to hear it or read the text.
This speech was highly controversial at the time because King declared the war in Vietnam “immoral.” I was a teenager at the time and can recall how polarized the nation was about the war. Opposing it was tantamount to being “anti-American” or a “traitor.”
It might have been cool for a teenager to declare themselves a traitor and oppose the war; not so much for an adult.
King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967. He was shot to death a year to the day later — April 4, 1968 — in Memphis.
Because the speech is mostly remembered for King publicly declaring his opposition to the war — and the controversy it caused — what has largely been forgotten is what King was referring to when he used the word “Beyond” in the title of his speech.
King was not declaring the war in Vietnam immoral only on Christian theological grounds, but because it stole resources from people who could have used them to lift themselves out of poverty. From the speech:
“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
I addressed this in an article for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. The successful, community-based anti-poverty efforts that were initiated in the 1960’s were afterward underfunded and neglected as the war sucked up financial resources and diverted political will.
I volunteer to work among the poor and homeless in my community; so what meaning does this speech have for me and the work I do?
In a word, a profound one.
One of the most frustrating aspects of advocating for the poor is how unaware the general public is of this situation, even when it’s happening in their community. As King points out in his speech, we are constantly being fed distractions to take our attention away from what is going on around us. War seems to be the most reliable vehicle for doing so. Throughout my lifetime, the United States has been at war somewhere — Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. The War on Poverty has been but a neglected stepchild compared to the time, energy and resources we devote to these foreign incursions.
“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.
“The more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”
James Abro is the author of “Facing Homelessness.” He is also a grass roots anti-poverty activist in his community, as well as a national advocate for Homeless Citizens Rights. James helps others write about homelessness and poverty, providing editing and writing assistance. His articles have appeared in The Nation, and for blogs published by the Center for American Progress, The Coalition on Human Needs and others. He is an active member of The Kairos Center for Religion, Rights and Social Justice.