[News] MLK - Beyond Vietnam
news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 11 17:24:15 EST 2007
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Address delivered to the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam,
at Riverside Church on 4 April 1967 in New York City
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very
delighted I am to be here tonight, and how very delighted I am to see
you expressing your concern about the issues that will be discussed
tonight by turning out in such large numbers. I also want to say that
I consider it a great honor to share this program with Dr. Bennett,
Dr. Commager, and Rabbi Heschel, some of the distinguished leaders
and personalities of our nation. And of course it's always good to
come back to Riverside Church. Over the last eight years, I have had
the privilege of preaching here almost every year in that period, and
it is always a rich and rewarding experience to come to this great
church and this great pulpit.
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my
conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting
because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the
organization which has brought us together, Clergy and Laymen
Concerned About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive
committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in
full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence
is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which
they call us is a most difficult one. Even 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. Nor does the
human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of
conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding
world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they
often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the
verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night
have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony,
but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is
appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must
rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's
history that a significant number of its religious leaders have
chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the
high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience
and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us.
If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our own inner
being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of
a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my
own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I
have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam,
many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the
heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud:
"Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining
the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say.
"Aren't you hurting the cause of your people?" they ask. And when I
hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I
am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the
inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.
Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in
which they live. In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem
it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust
concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist
Church-the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my
pastorate-leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my
beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the
National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.
Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation
and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam.
Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National
Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they
must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they
both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith
of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the
fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take
on both sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and
the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.
Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that
I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my
moral vision. 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 of 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.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it
became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating
the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their
brothers and their husbands to fight and to 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 eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in
Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East
Harlem. 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. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the
huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on
the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such
cruel manipulation of the poor.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it
grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last
three years, especially the last three summers. 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
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 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.
For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?"
and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have
this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the
soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our
vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the
conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself
until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the
shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston
Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!
Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern
for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present
war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy
must read "Vietnam." It can never be saved so long as it destroys the
deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who
are yet determined that "America will be" are led down the path of
protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of
America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed
upon me in 1954.* And I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was
also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked
before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me
beyond national allegiances.
But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the
meaning of my 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 am 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? What
then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful
minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not
share with them my life?
Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that
leads from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that
was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction
that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God.
Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of
sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply
concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast
children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the
privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by
allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than
nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and
positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless,
for the victims of our nation, for those it calls "enemy," for no
document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for
ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly
to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of
each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the
junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under
the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of
them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful
solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people
proclaimed their own independence in 1954-in 1945 rather-after a
combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist
revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they
quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document
of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to
support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government
felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence,
and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has
poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic
decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking
self-determination and a government that had been established not by
China-for whom the Vietnamese have no great love-but by clearly
indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants
this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important
needs in their lives.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the
right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the
French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam. Before the end
of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs.
Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to
despair of their reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them
with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war
even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the
full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.
After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land
reform would come again through the Geneva Agreement. But instead
there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the
temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we
supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man,
Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly
rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords,
and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The
peasants watched as all of this was presided over by United States
influence and then by increasing numbers of United States troops who
came to help quell the insurgency that Diem's methods had aroused.
When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line
of military dictators seemed to offer no real change, especially in
terms of their need for land and peace.
The only change came from America as we increased our troop
commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt,
inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our
leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and
land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not
their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and
apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into
concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They
know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as
we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops.
They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing
to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at
least twenty casualties from American firepower for one
Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of
them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands
of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the
streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers
as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to
our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords
and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning
land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on
them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in
the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the
independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family
and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We
have cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only noncommunist
revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have
supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted
their women and children and killed their men.
Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only
solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military
bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call
"fortified hamlets." The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build
our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for
such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they
cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.
Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for
those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National
Liberation Front, that strangely anonymous group we call "VC" or
"communists"? What must they think of the United States of America
when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of
Diem, which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in
the South? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led
to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity
when now we speak of "aggression from the North" as if there were
nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we
charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and
charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death
into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we
do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we
supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our
own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is
less than twenty-five percent communist, and yet insist on giving
them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that
we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam, and yet
we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly
organized political parallel government will not have a part? They
ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is
censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely
right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form
without them, the only party in real touch with the peasants. They
question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace
settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are
frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political
myth again, and then shore it up upon the power of a new violence?
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence,
when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his
questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we
may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we
are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the
brothers who are called the opposition.
So, too, with Hanoi. In the North, where our bombs now pummel the
land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but
understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of
confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of
American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to
independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought
membership in the French Commonwealth and were betrayed by the
weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was
they who led a second struggle against French domination at
tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they
controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a
temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with
Diem to prevent elections which could have surely brought Ho Chi Minh
to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been
betrayed again. When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these
things must be remembered.
Also, it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the
presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have
been the initial military breach of the Geneva Agreement concerning
foreign troops. They remind us that they did not begin to send troops
in large numbers and even supplies into the South until American
forces had moved into the tens of thousands.
Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about
the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president
claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi
Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its
forces, and now he has surely heard the increasing international
rumors of American plans for an invasion of the North. He knows the
bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional
pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony
can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world
speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak
nation more than eight hundred, or rather, eight thousand miles away
from its shores.
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these
last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to
understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," I am as
deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it
occurs to me that 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.
Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a
struggle among Vietnamese, and 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.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. 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
dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the
world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I
speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The
great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam.
Recently one of them wrote these words, and I quote: Each day the war
goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in
the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are
forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious
that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities
of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are
incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of
America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and
democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of
the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do
not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world
will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some
horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world
now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve.
It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning
of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the
life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must
be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for
our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in
bringing a halt to this tragic war.
I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government
should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of
extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
Number one: End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
Number two: Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action
will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
Three: Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia
by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
Four: Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has
substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any
meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam government.
Five: Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in
accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement. [sustained applause]
Part of our ongoing [applause continues], part of our ongoing
commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to
any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which
included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we
can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that
is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary.
Meanwhile [applause], meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues
have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage
itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our
voices and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways in
Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking
out every creative method of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service, we must clarify
for them our nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the
alternative of conscientious objection. [sustained applause] I am
pleased to say that this is a path now chosen by more than seventy
students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it
to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and
unjust one. [applause] Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of
draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as
conscientious objectors. [applause] These are the times for real
choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must
be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly.
Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best
suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and
sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular
crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that
struggle, but I wish to go on now 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 [applause],
and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves
organizing "clergy and laymen concerned" 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.
[sustained applause] So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not
beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to
him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution.
During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of
suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military
advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our
investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American
forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used
against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green
Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F.
Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who
make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution
inevitable." [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this
is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful
revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the
pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.
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 [applause], 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.
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
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring
contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will
look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West
investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only
to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of
the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our
alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is
not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to
teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true
revolution of values will lay hand 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 peoples 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. [sustained applause]
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well
lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a
tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so
that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of
war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status
quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense
against communism. [applause] War is not the answer. Communism will
never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let
us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided
passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in
the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and
calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism,
but rather in a positive thrust for democracy [applause], realizing
that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive
action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to
remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which
are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting
against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the
wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are
being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising
up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great
light. We in the West must support these revolutions.
It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear
of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western
nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the
modern world have now become the arch antirevolutionaries. This has
driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit.
Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make
democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we
initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the
revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world
declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With
this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and
unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be
exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low [Audience:]
(Yes); the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain."
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our
loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation
must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order
to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern
beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for
an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft
misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed
by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now
become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of
love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I'm not
speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of
that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme
unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the
door which leads to ultimate reality. This
Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality
is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: "Let us
love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that
loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not
God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in
us and his love is perfected in us." 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." Unquote.
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today.
We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding
conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too
late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves
us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The
tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may
cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is
adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and
jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic
words, "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully
records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: "The
moving finger writes, and having writ moves on."
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent
coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find
new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the
developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not
act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful
corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without
compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and
bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling
of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response.
Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle
is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life
militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest
regrets? Or will there be another message-of longing, of hope, of
solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause,
whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it
otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently
stated: Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide, In the
strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side; Some great
cause, God's new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight, And the
choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light. Though
the cause of evil prosper, yet 'tis truth alone is strong Though her
portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong Yet that
scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown Standeth God
within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to
transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace.
If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the
jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of
brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to
speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when
justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty
stream. [sustained applause]
* King says "1954," but most likely means 1964, the year he received
the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110
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